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VA blames ‘confusion’ for misstatements about deaths

Source: John Bodnar/ CNN

Source: John Bodnar/ CNN

(CNN) — The Department of Veterans Affairs apologized on Thursday for causing “confusion” in communicating about the number of deaths caused by delayed care at its medical facilities, but said “there was no intent to mislead anyone.”

In a statement to CNN, the VA said two separate reviews were “intertwined in written and oral statements leading to confusion. … VA inadvertently caused confusion in its communication on this complex set of reviews that were ongoing at the time. For that, we apologize.”

Earlier this week, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller accused the agency of “what appears to be an attempt to mislead Congress and the public” by manipulating its account of the number of deaths.

In a letter to the VA, Miller accused officials of giving questionable information on a fact sheet distributed to his committee at a briefing in April and consistently repeating that information in congressional testimony and to journalists.

Erroneous info repeated

The VA initially said it discovered 23 veterans had died after reviewing 250,000 cases dating to 1999. It actually reviewed only 11,000 cases over a much shorter period, from 2010 to 2012, which may indicate there could be more deaths than what the agency has reported.

Even former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki repeated the erroneous information during a news briefing on Capitol Hill.

“We went back in time 15 years. Out of that, we probably looked at 250 million consults. That was narrowed down to 76 institutional disclosures, of which there were 23 deaths that had occurred,” Shinseki said.

His comments came about two weeks before he resigned in May under pressure over the scandal over delayed care and findings that VA schedulers manipulated patient wait times.

Obama signs VA overhaul

The VA apology comes on the same day President Barack Obama signed into law a $16 billion measure to address problems at VA medical facilities.

Miller slammed the VA’s response.

“Even though landmark VA reform legislation has been signed into law, it seems the same sort of dishonesty and deception that caused the VA scandal is continuing unabated at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Miller said in a statement.

“In briefings to congressional staff, in congressional hearings and in discussions with the media in April, top VA Central Office officials omitted key facts about a review of delays in VA care.

“VA officials let this false impression fester for four months until they were confronted about the scheme by Congress and the media. The department is now attempting to chalk all this up to a misunderstanding, but that explanation doesn’t pass the smell test,” Miller said.

He added that it was “a blatant attempt to mislead Congress, the press and the public, and we will not let it stand.”

Miller said new VA Secretary Robert McDonald must find out who was behind it and fire them.

Investigations of VA

CNN has been investigating and publishing reports of wait lists and deaths of veterans across VA hospitals across the country for nearly a year.

Since August 2013, CNN has repeatedly requested records from the VA through the Freedom of Information Act, but the agency so far has not provided many key documents.

A recent report compiled by the office of Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma found that more than 1,000 veterans might have died in the past decade as a result of malpractice or lack of care from VA medical centers.

At his confirmation hearing in July, McDonald vowed to transform the embattled federal health care system.

“The seriousness of this moment demands urgent action,” McDonald wrote in his testimony.