An exchange of letters between Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and a top Republican this month reveal the VA’s early efforts to explain a secret waiting list that one of its hospitals allegedly used to hide treatment delays.

Shinseki said the secret list may refer to a spreadsheet of “interim notes” that a Phoenix VA clinic developed “for reference purposes” while entering new patients into an electronic scheduling database.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) has raised questions about why the VA destroyed the spreadsheet.

The Department of Veterans Affairs in Phoenix. (AP/Matt York).

Shinseki acknowledged that the VA eliminated the notes, saying federal law and department policy require such action when the information is “no longer needed for reference purposes.”

The explanations came as part of Shinseki’s response to a May 1 letter from Miller asking for information about an alleged cover-up of treatment delays in Phoenix. Miller issued the request as similar claims were emerging at VA clinics throughout the country.

Shinseki Letter.pdf

The VA Office of the Inspector General is investigating the allegations. Shinseki said the eventual findings should “provide additional information regarding this transitory process and the effect, if any, it may have had on patient care.”

Miller said in his letter to Shinseki that VA health official Thomas Lynch first mentioned an “interim list” at a private briefing with committee staff in April. Lynch speculated that the Phoenix allegations may be related to that spreadsheet, Miller said.

VA policy requires the department’s medical centers to enter patients into a database known as the Electronic Wait List if they do not see a doctor within 90 days of requesting an appointment.

Shinseki did not mention whether the interim list was used to hide treatment delays. Miller’s committee subpoenaed the VA for documents and e-mails relating to the spreadsheet on May 8, one day after receiving the secretary’s response letter.

Miller said Tuesday that the VA provided about 200 e-mails from Lynch, but nothing else. “VA’s response to the committee’s subpoena is clearly inadequate and makes me suspicious that the department has something to hide,” the chairman said in a statement.

Miller scheduled a committee meeting for Thursday to “address the VA’s continued failure to comply with the subpoena.” The panel has called Lynch and two of the VA’s top congressional liaisons to answer questions about the destruction of records.

Miller has also complained that the department took too long to comply with a request he made on April 9 to preserve all documents at the Phoenix clinic. The VA complied on April 17.

Shinseki said in his response letter that the VA’s general counsel had asked the committee to clarify its request so that the department could provide “clear and helpful guidance on the specific records that must be retained.”

Shinseki described the VA’s response as “appropriate and timely in light of the seriousness of the allegations and the best information available to the [VA office of special counsel] at the time.”

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