A Department of Veterans Affairs "fact sheet" told Congress and the public in April that the agency reviewed 250 million medical consultations, dating back to 1999, and found 76 veterans seriously harmed by treatment delays for gastrointestinal cancers. Of them, 23 died.
Here's what the VA didn't say: Its report included only cases involving veterans harmed in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, according to interviews and documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times. Not one of those 23 deaths occurred before 2010.
The chairman of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee said in an interview that the VA deliberately misled Congress by producing a fact sheet that led to the unmistakable conclusion that the figures went back 15 years.
"They tried to misdirect Congress and the American people away from the facts," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Pensacola, the committee's chairman. "I think they got caught and now they are trying to modify their story. . . . The misdirection was, in fact, designed in Washington."
It was not until July 3 that the VA acknowledged to Miller in a letter that the numbers in the fact sheet involved cases only from fiscal 2010 and 2011. The letter provided no explanation for the earlier omission.
The Times has repeatedly asked the VA why the fact sheet failed to include the correct years. No response has been provided, though the agency insists it did not try to mislead anyone.
Miller said the VA often releases complicated, befuddling statements that appear as if they were written by a lawyers whose aim is to confuse the truth.
The VA insists it is reviewing consultation delays dating to 1999. But if this is true, the agency has so far released only numbers from 2010 and 2011, not for the wider period.
Some local VA officials provided accurate information on the fact sheet. Regional VA officials in Seminole told reporters the cases of Florida veterans being hurt by gastrointestinal cancer treatment delays were from 2010 to 2012.
Dr. Gavin West, the VA's special assistant for clinical operations who worked on the fact sheet, said in a recent interview he did not know why the document did not contain the correct years from which the numbers were drawn.
"I could apologize for any misinterpretation of the fact sheet," West said.
After the Times pressed West about why the fact sheet had incorrect years, VA spokeswoman Gina Jackson interrupted: "Is this really the most important question that you have that you want to address? Because it just seems to me it is a misunderstanding of the way the fact sheet is labeled. Am I missing something here?"
Mary Kay Hollingsworth, another VA spokeswoman, later said, "I really don't think the contents of the fact sheet are something that Dr. West should respond to."
The Times reported Monday that the VA withheld from the fact sheet a potentially large number of veterans who experienced delays beyond 60 days in getting a gastrointestinal cancer diagnosis. The VA said those veterans were not seriously harmed, so it did not include their numbers in the total for Congress.
The VA is embroiled in what might be the worst scandal in its history, with disclosures that hospitals across the nation engaged in rampant "gaming strategies" that hid delays in treating veterans and that some facilities tried to hide patient deaths.
Allegations have also been reported that the VA engaged in widespread whistleblower retaliation.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned earlier this year in the midst of revelations. Former Proctor & Gamble chief Robert McDonald, confirmed by the Senate earlier this week as Shinseki's replacement, has promised extensive reforms.
Contact William R. Levesque at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.