WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA), member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, grilled Biden administration VA Secretary Denis McDonough over the VA’s lack of transparency regarding data on the efficiency of VA health care for veterans and their families. Further, Secretary McDonough had no answer regarding reports that since the introduction of the VA’s Opioid Safety Initiative, suicide among veterans in rural areas increased by 75%.
“My staff requested information regarding veterans’ health care in the community…and we were told to submit a Freedom of Information Act. This is Congress. This is the [Senate] VA Committee which is supposed to be providing oversight and we were told to submit a FOIA. It kind of took things to a new level…it just blows my mind. I am representing people. And when those people feel as if the VA is doing nothing but hiding, it’s not me—it’s the people I represent, the veterans I represent—who are really being offended,” said Dr. Cassidy.
On reports that there was a 75% increase in veteran suicide in rural areas since the introduction of the VA’s Opioid Safety Initiative…
Cassidy: “On April 12th, our office sent a letter to you regarding the ineffectiveness of the VA’s Opioid Safety Initiative and asked what barriers Congress should remove in order to better public-private partnerships to increase veterans’ access to testing and treatment. There was an August 2021 report in The Washington Post which kind of motivated this which showed after the introduction of the Opioid Safety Initiative, suicides among veterans in rural areas increased by 75 percent and increased in the urban areas by 35 percent. We have not heard back from the letter we sent on April 12th about a program which The Washington Post is reporting was at least associated temporally, we don’t know causally, with a 75% increase in veteran suicide in rural areas. Any comment?”
McDonough: “No, I will get to the bottom of it.”
Senate VA Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-MT) shared Cassidy’s frustrations over the lack of transparency from Secretary McDonough saying to Cassidy, “…I just want to say that I would be just as frustrated as you with the FOIA request back. I would hope that because I have done this with everybody from Wilkie to this secretary that if there was something that came up like that that you could get ahold of them immediately and say ‘hey this is unacceptable.’ I don’t know what the rules around FOIA are, but I get your point. And when we ask questions, we need to get answers.”
Cassidy, as a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has a congressional oversight role over the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure the agency is providing accessible, quality health care for our nation’s veterans and their families.
Timeline of Cassidy’s staff attempting to get data on the VA’s health care efficiency for our nation’s veterans and their families from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:
- In June 2022, Cassidy’s staff reached out to the Veterans Health Administration Open Data department for data including wait times, patient services, and the number of telehealth appointments provided by the VA. Cassidy’s staff was told by the VA to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
- In July, Cassidy’s staff reached out to the Veterans Affairs Congressional Liaison Service to ask for the data. The Congressional Liaison Service connected Cassidy’s staff to the VA Health Team for assistance.
- Since August, the VA Health Team has only acknowledged Cassidy’s request for data. As of September 22, 2022, Cassidy has not received the data he seeks.