WASHINGTON—The Department of Veterans Affairs says it needs to be more careful in public comments about the superiority of its health care system, but it insists that it never made a quality-of-care claim that its top leader has made repeatedly.
Reacting to a McClatchy Newspapers story about exaggerations by its top officials, the VA sent veterans organizations a four-page memo on Friday responding to the story. McClatchy obtained a copy of the memo from a veterans group.
McClatchy "makes a valid case that we need to be more careful with our numbers and our public statements," the memo said.
On one key point—the VA's erroneous reporting of customer satisfaction surveys—the department said it "did not realize the error until (McClatchy) pointed it out. . . . We appreciate this being called to our attention. There was no intention to deliberately mislead anyone."
Beyond that, the VA sought to minimize the issues raised by McClatchy, which last week detailed officials' exaggerations about the system's access, satisfaction and quality in speeches or in statements to Congress.
The VA insisted that it never made one of the claims that McClatchy highlighted.
That claim deals with an important study by the RAND Corp. While the study showed that VA patients are more likely than non-VA patients to receive necessary tests, agency officials inflated those results, saying they showed that the VA has the best health care system in the nation. Since it only compared VA patients to non-VA patients, the study doesn't support that claim.
In its memo, the VA said, "VA has never claimed that the study showed that we performed better than any other health care system in the nation."
But comments pulled from VA and congressional Web sites indicate otherwise:
_VA Secretary James Nicholson, in a June 6, 2005, speech: "Last December, a RAND report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine ranked the overall quality of VA medical care as significantly higher than any other health care system in this country."
_Nicholson, Feb. 8, 2006, before Congress: "A RAND report ranked VA performance on 294 measures of quality as significantly higher than any other health care system in America."
_Nicholson, April 21, 2005, speech: "Last December, a RAND report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine ranked the overall quality of VA medical care as significantly higher than any other health care system in this country."
The VA had no comment on the issue.
The VA operates a network of more than 150 hospitals and about 900 clinics nationwide. Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the department's medical system has been under pressure to cope with thousands of returning veterans.
The system treats more than 5 million people each year.
For more information on veterans and military health issues, see McClatchy Newspapers' "Wounded Warriors" blog: http://washingtonbureau.typepad.com/veterans/