- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2019

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — An investigation into 11 suspicious deaths at a West Virginia VA facility has dragged on too long and produced too little in the way of answers for federal officials and the families affected, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Times, the VA chief said it is long past time to end inquiries into incidents at Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg and provide justice for victims. The Justice Department late last week confirmed that it had launched a criminal investigation into the deaths, underscoring the gravity of the situation and the magnitude of the multiple investigations underway.

The scandal has drawn the ire of lawmakers — including Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat — and veterans groups, but details remain scarce. Even the secretary said he has largely been kept in the dark and often is unaware of basic facts surrounding the inquiries at his department’s facility.

“The sad part of this,” Mr. Wilkie said in an interview on the sidelines of a major veterans suicide prevention conference late last week, “is that I got most of my information, as Sen. Manchin has, from the newspapers. You all know as much about what’s going on there … as we do, as the centers do. Some seem to know more.



“This has been going on too long,” he said. “We owe that to the people who have suffered to get this thing done.

Mr. Wilkie, who took over at the VA just over a year ago, also detailed the department’s efforts to reduce veteran suicides and the strides made in reducing wait times at medical centers across the country. He also praised former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned last year amid deep disagreements with President Trump.

Mr. Wilkie, a reserve officer in the U.S. Air Force, served as Mr. Mattis’ undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. Mr. Mattis is making headlines again this week as he promotes his new book and offers fresh details about his break from the Trump administration.

But Mr. Wilkie made his most passionate comments about the situation in Clarksburg, where at least 11 deaths in 2017 and 2018 are under investigation. One suspicious death reportedly centers on a patient who was given a fatal dose of insulin despite having no diagnosis of diabetes.

Much like the VA secretary, lawmakers say they are growing angry at the lack of clarity.

“I’m frustrated that I’m not getting answers because of the ongoing investigation,” Mr. Manchin, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement last week.

“All of the facts will come out and no one in the VA system will be protected if they had any involvement in this horrible crime against veterans,” he said. “We owe every veteran the best possible care they’ve earned.”

The VA inspector general’s office would not directly address Mr. Wilkie’s comments about the lack of information being shared but said it continues to investigate allegations of wrongdoing.

“At this time, we cannot comment further on those activities. As is always the case, the [VA inspector general] works with the department to identify and urgently address allegations related to patient safety. The care and safety of our veterans and their families remain our top priority,” VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal said in a statement.

A spokesman for the Clarksburg VA facility told CNN last week that the allegations do not involve any current employees and that the center has put new safeguards into place. The U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of Virginia said it began investigating “as soon as potential criminal conduct was discovered and continues to be a top priority.”

The office did not say when the investigation could be completed.

While getting answers on the Clarksburg situation remains a top priority, Mr. Wilkie said, the VA has made huge strides on the broader issue of reducing wait times at clinics across the country. Officials said more work needs to be done but stressed that wait times at many VA facilities are lower now than at private doctors’ offices.

“At this point, in the last few days of August, we’ve had 1.5 million more appointments this year than we did all of last year,” Mr. Wilkie told The Times. “Veterans are voting with their feet.”

Preventing veteran suicides, the secretary said, also remains a top priority for his department. Mr. Wilkie said the Trump administration, which established a governmentwide task force this year to tackle the issue, has put more resources into veteran suicides than ever before.

“We’ve never had the presidential spotlight on an issue like suicide,” he said.
Mr. Wilkie also spoke highly of Mr. Mattis but steered clear of the retired Marine Corps general’s public disagreements with the president.

“I’m not going to comment on that, other than to say he’s always been very kind to me, and he’s a great combat leader and somebody I was very proud to work for and with,” the secretary said.

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