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Grassley skeptical over VA openness

He and Ernst tour the Iowa City VA, await report on vet's suicide

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IOWA CITY — After touring the Iowa City VA Medical Center with colleague Sen. Joni Ernst on Friday, Sen. Chuck Grassley questioned the transparency of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, both nationally and locally.

The Republican Iowa senators met with VA officials in the wake of the July 8 suicide of a Davenport veteran who reported being denied admittance to the Iowa City VA.

“If it could have been prevented, it should have been prevented,” Ernst said of Sgt. Brandon Ketchum’s death. “There may have been a provider who tried to do something, we don’t know yet. When that report comes out, we’ll see.”

Ketchum’s death gained attention after he posted a message on Facebook saying he went to the Iowa City hospital July 7 seeking help, only to be told to go home and take his medication.

Ketchum’s girlfriend, Kristine Nichols, told The Gazette last month Ketchum was seeking help at the VA for substance abuse. He had been addicted to painkillers and, later, heroin, Nichols said.

The VA’s Office of the Inspector General is investigating what happened leading up to Ketchum’s suicide and whether standard procedures were followed or should be changed to better help veterans with mental health or substance abuse issues, senators said.

There is no timeline for the probe, but Grassley said the VA better do a thorough job.

“There’s a reason to be suspicious about this given what came to the surface in the summer of 2014,” Grassley said.

Media reports in 2014 showed dozens of veterans died while waiting for care at facilities in other states, and revealed some VA officials falsified records to make it look like vets were getting timely care.

“It stems from the fact there’s not enough appreciation of whistleblowers,” Grassley said. “People in the higher up don’t want to hear anything bad. Our job in Congress is to make sure there is maximum transparency because transparency brings accountability.”

Grassley questioned transparency of the Iowa City VA after reporters were not allowed on hospital premises Friday for a news conference.

“Is this a national organization (rule), or just this facility somehow has different rules than other facilities?” Grassley asked. “You ought to ask them whether it’s because I’m up for re-election.”

Reporters were allowed on the grounds of the VA Central Iowa Health Care System in Des Moines after Ernst toured it last month, she said.

The Iowa City VA banned news media from the hospital Friday because officials believe it’s a violation of the federal Hatch Act, which governs “partisan political activities” on federal property, Public Affairs Officer Bryan Clark said in an email Friday.

The law “prohibits VA resources from being used for speeches, media engagements or other activities that would be considered a part of an ‘action in support of, or in opposition to, or attempting to influence, current policy of the Government of the United States,’ or could be perceived to influence an election or support for a specific candidate for public office,” he wrote.

When asked whether Des Moines officials were violating the law by allowing media on the premises at the Ernst event, spokesman Jon Pruett said yes. He said media may visit the Iowa City VA for other stories that don’t involve members of Congress.

If the OIG report shows the Iowa City VA needs to make changes, Ernst said she’s hopeful officials will do so without congressional action.

Ernst, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, has been a vocal advocate for suicide prevention among veterans.

“How many veterans may be lost while Congress fights over the language of specific bills?” she asked.

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