A congressional staffer will accompany members of The American Legion during a survey of Department of Veterans Affairs regional centers after a VA official blocked representatives of the veterans group from meeting with employees at the Seattle facility.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., believes the interference was a "deliberate and retaliatory" response to Legion testimony in December that the VA's accuracy rate on disability claims is significantly lower than the department claims.
"I caution that any obstruction to external review of [VA] work product is contrary to both transparency and government accountability," Miller said in a blistering Feb. 14 letter to VA Secretary Erik Shinseki. "It will not be tolerated. ... Moreover, actions taken to frustrate the reviews of The American Legion are hostile to both the mission of the [VA] and the interests of our nation's veterans."
To make sure there is no future obstruction of the Legion's work, a committee staffer will accompany Legion representatives on their VA center visits and report to him, Miller said.
The VA is not commenting on Miller's letter or the department's decision to bar employees from talking the Legion representatives.
"VA is reviewing the issues raised in Chairman Miller's letter related to the American Legion, and will respond to his office," spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said in an email on Thursday.
The Legion has been conducting its Regional Office Action Reviews for 15 years. The oversight reviews check on the quality of work and assess work processes. They're intended to serve the interests of the veterans and also the VA by providing the perspective of an interested outsider.
Legion officials were taken aback in January, however, when they were unable to meet with staff at the VA Regional Center in Seattle, Wash.
"We worked quite well with the VA before this," said Verna Jones, the Legion's national director for veterans' affairs and rehabilitation. Recently, however, "there has been some criticism of the VA in our [congressional] testimony, a difference of opinion on their accuracy rate. We've been vocal about that."
In December, a Legion official challenged the VA on its accuracy rate during a hearing of the House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee on disability and memorial affairs. The VA has said its accuracy rate is about 90 percent.
Zachary Hearn, deputy director of benefits for the Legion, said the Legion's review of 260 claims found errors in 55 percent.
In his letter to Shinseki, Miller pointed the finger at Under Secretary for Veterans Benefits Allison Hickey for obstructing the Legion ROAR team. Hickey has been a frequent target of congressional criticism, and Miller has previously called for her resignation.
In December, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, pressed Hickey over the conflicting statistics, noting that the Government Accountability Office and other organizations have also come up with numbers far different than the VA's.
The VA has continued to defend its own figures, arguing that the small samplings by the Legion, GAO and others don't give a full picture.
"Before we went to Seattle [Hickey] said she wouldn't allow us to talk to the employees," Jones said. "There may be some hurt feelings over us disagreeing with their [VA] accuracy rates, but we have a responsibility to be transparent and up front with our members and veterans in general. ... None of this is intended to hurt anyone or speak ill of anyone. But it is intended to be honest so we can help veterans."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at Bryant.Jordan@monster.com.