Tennessee Lawmakers Await Inspector General Inquiry into Failures at State VA Hospitals

Word from the VA needed to initiate the process

Phoenix VA Health Care Center / AP

Tennessee lawmakers are waiting for the Department of Veterans Affairs to respond to a letter outlining problems with the state's VA hospitals in order to allow the Office of Inspector General to begin an official investigation.

"The Office of Inspector General has informed Congressman Black that it will not make a determination on whether to proceed with an investigation of the Murfreesboro VA clinic until we first hear back from our letter to VA Secretary McDonald," said Jonathan Frank, a spokesman for Rep. Diane Black (R., Tenn.). "Congressman Black believes that the reports of lengthy wait times and poor care at the Murfreesboro VA clinic merit an immediate investigation and is disappointed that a handful of DC bureaucrats have slow walked a congressional effort to demand better care on behalf of our veterans."

Long wait times, short-staffed clinics, and closed emergency rooms prompted Tennessee representatives to push for an inspector general investigation into the state Veterans Affairs agency. Rep. Black organized the writing of a letter to VA Secretary Ray McDonald calling for an IG inquiry into the state VA, citing similar infractions that were revealed in Arizona veterans’ centers last year.

"What was found across the entire country was it wasn’t isolated to Arizona’s VA, it was something that was prevalent in a lot of hospitals, and that is when we first originally found out just how bad things are in our own districts," Black told the Washington Free Beacon.

The two veterans aid centers in question are located in Murfreesboro and Nashville. They are part of what is referred to as the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System.

The hospital in Murfreesboro is located in Tennessee’s fourth district. Congressman Black said it was no longer accepting new patients, instead referring veterans to the facility in Nashville, about 35 miles away.

"With me having such a rural district," Black said, "these veterans already have to travel a long distance to get to the Murfreesboro hospital. To add an extra 30 miles onto that, that is significant for people who are really needing care."

Black also said the emergency room at Murfreesboro had been closed. Instead of a 24-hour emergency room, the space is now functioning as an urgent care facility that is only open during the day.

Black questioned whether or not veterans had been informed of these changes. "Were the veterans given the information they needed in order to not go to that hospital thinking they were going to see care in an emergency room and get there to find out it is either closed or it is just a clinic?" she asked.

These allegations, which the VA has since confirmed, follow revelations that the VA hospitals in middle Tennessee have the longest wait times for patients in the VA’s nationwide system.

"In addition to that, they were already short staffed. We also found out they did not renew a contract they had with Meharry Medical Center which is a hospital in Nashville, where they would have interns staffing the hospital, so the already short staff and long wait times would only be greater with the inadequate staff they had," Black said.

Four other members of Congress—Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.), Scott DesJarlais (R., Tenn.), Chuck Fleischmann (R., Tenn.), and Phil Roe (R., Tenn.)—joined Black in her letter to Secretary McDonald. All support an Inspector General investigation.

Black diagnosed the systemic failure as "a leadership problem," noting that the issues took place despite the fact that the Tennessee VA’s budget was increased by 5 percent last year and is not directly affected by sequestration.

"Also, we will turn to the top commander there, and that is the President of the United States. After a year, he should be holding McDonald responsible for what is happening across the entire system," Black said.

Since sending the letter to the VA secretary on May 21, followed by a request to the Office of the Inspector General, Black’s office has yet to receive a formal response from the VA organization.

Published under: Veterans Affairs