The new inspector general at the Department of Veterans Affairs is hoping to quickly repair the office’s image after nearly two years of criticism for cursory investigations and secrecy.
Michael Missal, who began work last Monday, said he plans to reach out to veterans’ groups, Congress and others to let them know his door is open and he plans to be more transparent.
“I feel very strongly that the public has a right to know the work of the VA IG’s office,” Missal in an exclusive interview, his first since taking the job.
The inspector general is an independent authority responsible under federal law for rooting out fraud and mismanagement at the VA and keeping Congress — and therefore, the public — “fully and currently” informed. But USA TODAY investigations found that his predecessors failed to release the findings of 140 probes of VA health care and sat on the results of 77 wait-time investigations for months.
In one case, an investigation found doctors at a VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wis., prescribing dangerous amounts of opiates. The IG briefed VA officials on the findings but didn’t release a public report, trusting they would fix the issue.
Five months later, a 35-year old Marine Corps veteran, Jason Simcakoski, died from mixed drug toxicity as a patient there after doctors added another opiate to the 14 drugs he already was prescribed.
Missal said he plans to look into that case and why the report wasn’t released.
“That’s one of the matters I’m going to get more deeply involved in,” he said.
At the request of Congress, Missal is also launching investigations of VA manager transfers and congressional testimony given by Skye McDougall, a regional VA official. She testified last spring that veterans in Southern California were waiting an average of four days for appointments, but CNN later reported that internal documents showed the average wait there was much longer.
Lawmakers accused her of lying and complained when the VA initially planned to transfer her to oversee the Phoenix VA and other facilities in the Southwest and ultimately put her in charge of a regional office overseeing VA hospitals and clinics in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi.
“We’re going to look at it in a broad way to see if there’s any issue with respect to how they do it, if there’s any impropriety with respect to people moving around,” Missal said.
He is the first permanent inspector general at the VA since the last one retired in December 2013. Deputies have been running the office in the meantime and have come under withering criticism.
In 2014, lawmakers assailed the office for failing to conclude that wait-time falsification contributed to veteran deaths in Phoenix. The deputy inspector general at the time, Richard Griffin, conceded later that it had.
Whistleblowers have accused the office of targeting them for investigation instead of the problems they are reporting, and the Office of Special Counsel — a federal agency charged with protecting whistleblowers — has criticized the inspector general for incomplete investigations.
Protecting whistleblowers is a high priority, Missal said, and in the future he wants to make sure his office conducts "first-rate" investigations.
“First-rate work product means it needs to be accurate, fair, objective, thorough, and timely,” he said.
That may be tougher than it sounds. The inspector general’s office, which employs roughly 650 people in Washington and at VA locations around the country, has struggled to keep up with an increasing number of complaints to investigate as the number of veterans enrolled for VA benefits and care has skyrocketed. The number of complaints went from 16,700 in 2001 to 38,100 last year, according to congressional reports, but the staff has not grown enough to meet the expanded workload.
The inspector general now is only able to conduct comprehensive investigations of one of the roughly 50 complaints about poor veteran health care that it gets each week, according to congressional testimony.
If Congress provides more money, Missal said, he is ready to hire more people. In the meantime, he wants to devote his resources to the most pressing complaints.
“We're going to make sure we work on the important things, the ones that are meaningful and put out reports that are independent,” he said.