March 21, 2008 – Fort Wayne, Ind — U.S. Rep. Mark Souder is criticizing the White House’s decision to withhold about three-quarters of a government consultant’s report detailing recommendations for the future of the city’s VA hospital.
The Journal Gazette obtained a heavily edited copy of the $530,000 report Wednesday after filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act. The report was submitted in September by the consultant, but the Veterans Affairs Department had refused to release it.
The version of the 78-page report VA officials released Wednesday includes only 21 pages, and most of those have thick black lines through sentences or whole paragraphs.
Souder, R-Ind., said he received the same partial report, and criticized the agency’s secrecy. Yet he also said it probably will benefit northeastern Indiana’s veterans if the document’s conclusions on Fort Wayne Veterans Affairs Hospital are kept under wraps.
He said he suspects the report advised the VA to close it.
“It’s extremely bad policy,” Souder said of the secrecy. “But my job is to keep the hospital open … and if I have reasonable expectation to believe a report has illogical, bad conclusions in it, I’m glad when they eat their words.”
Souder said the VA and the Bush administration can more easily shift positions if they don’t have to explain why they rejected the recommendations of a costly report.
VA spokesman Matt Smith said in a statement that the report was not reviewed by the White House before it was provided to Souder and the newspaper.
“VA is still examining all the options available as we work to meet the current and future needs of Northern Indiana veterans,” Smith said. “The report is a pre-decisional document being reviewed as part of VA’s ongoing strategic plan and has not been acted on by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.”
Last month, the VA ordered a new study to focus on the hospital’s outpatient care.
The report by Booz Allen Hamilton examined whether the services should be expanded, drastically reduced or transferred to other hospitals.
The hospital serves as the medical center for 44,000 of northeast Indiana’s 160,000 veterans. A national commission recommended in 2004 that only outpatient care be offered and that northeastern Indiana veterans go to Indianapolis for in-patient services.
It said closing Fort Wayne’s in-patient services would save $2.1 million a year.
After protests from veterans, Souder inserted a provision in legislation requiring another study, and the VA hired the consulting firm to reanalyze the hospital.
The VA’s Freedom of Information Act officer said no one outside the agency will ever see a full copy of the report unless a congressional committee with oversight of the VA demands it as part of an investigation.
The version released omitted all material that refers to anything involved in a decision-making process, including opinions, findings and conclusions.
The hospital currently has 26 beds. A portion of the released sections said the hospital would need 31 beds by 2015, but it predicts that would drop to 29 beds by 2025 because the population of veterans in northeastern Indiana will drop.
Souder said the report does not take into account the large number of National Guard members and the likelihood that Congress will extend military health benefits to them — thereby creating even more need for a VA medical facility.