Department of Veterans Affairs investigators examining manipulation of patient appointment schedules at VA hospitals have subpoenaed records relating to such claims collected by a non-government watchdog group working with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
The Project on Government Oversight, or POGO, said it will fight the move by the VA's inspector general, who is demanding the group turn over all paper and electronic documents it has collected from sources by June 13.
"Our unwillingness to comply with the subpoena is consistent with our long history of protecting sources who come to our organization," POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian and General Counsel Scott H. Amey told VA Acting IG Richard J. Griffin in a June 9 letter.
The two also told Griffin that his office already has the means to collect the kinds of information that POGO has gotten from its sources, current and former VA employees, and veterans.
"The people coming to POGO have a shared interest in our investigative reporting and efforts to expose and remedy the failures of the VA," they said. The subpoena is unconstitutional because it violates the group's First Amendment rights, they said.
No one from IAVA was available for comment.
Joe Newman, a spokesman for POGO, said the organization has been subpoenaed in the past, and been served with gag orders, as well, "which we also ignored."
"At this stage we'll wait to see what the IG's next step will be," he said. "We're hopeful that some common sense will come into it and they'll realize we're all trying to work for the same goal ... We don't know why they're targeting us. It seems misguided."
More than 700 people have contacted the group though the POGO/IAVA-sponsored VAOversight.org site since it was launched last month, according to Newman. Of that number about 25 percent are current or former VA employees who related experiences working for the VA "that they're troubled by," Newman said.
The others who reached out to POGO are veterans or family members of veterans who have had specific problems with VA health care. Newman said POGO is forwarding these folks on to IAVA.
"That's not the kind of expertise we have," Newman said.
The non-profit, non-partisan group, founded in 1981, has built a reputation on exposing government waste, fraud and abuse.
POGO and IAVA announced the partnership on May 15, about three weeks after CNN reported that up to 40 veterans may have died while awaiting a doctor's appointment at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
A VA audit of the Phoenix hospital's scheduling practices revealed that 18 veterans on the secret list died before getting to see a doctor. The VA has also confirmed that manipulation of patient schedules has been occurring at other VA hospitals and clinics across the country.
Overall, more than 57,000 veterans were found to have waited longer than 90 days for an appointment, and another 63,000 seeking an appointment never got one, according to the VA audit.
Griffin, testifying before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Monday night, said VA employees will only know the government is serious about ending the systemic gaming of schedules when someone is charged criminally.
"That will be the shot heard around the system," he said.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org