Lawmakers put Indianapolis VA officials on hot seat, demanding answers after email scandal

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INDIANAPOLIS (March 11, 2015) - Days after it was revealed a supervisor at the Roudebush Veteran Affairs Medical Center sent an internal email, which appears to be mocking veteran suicides, lawmakers are demanding answers from director Thomas Mattice.

“What we have at Roudebush is a chain of command,” Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) said in an interview Wednesday. “And in every chain of command the person in charge is responsible. We want some answers.”

In numerous private conversations since Tuesday, Indiana lawmakers have quizzed Mattice and VA staff. Mattice hasn’t publicly answered questions over the controversy, despite repeated requests.

“It’s a bit late in the manner in which they’re doing the investigation,” Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) said in an interview after talking with Mattice. “But I think it’s very appropriate. We need to make sure it’s not a culture.”

On Wednesday, Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) addressed her serious concerns with Indianapolis VA officials. Walorski, who sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has helped pass legislation making it easier for VA officials to fire employees.

"This is a symptomatic story of what goes on around the country,” Walorski said. “I think a lot of people think that just because we passed these bills everything got better overnight. It didn't. Passing the bills was a way to hold more people accountable and try to bring some transparency to a bureaucracy that`s run amok."

Robin Paul, who managed the Transition Clinic, was put on administration leave Tuesday after sending the email in December. The email featured a Christmas elf, appearing as a clinic patient, mocking antidepressants and suicide. The emails were first disclosed by our newsgathering partners at the Indianapolis Star.

VA officials knew of the email, but didn’t take serious action until it was made public.

“We’re trying to find out exactly what the VA has done, when they knew and find out all the information,” Donnelly said.

On Capitol Hill Wednesday, Donnelly introduced new legislation aimed at improving mental health care for veterans. Some of the measures would require new and continued training for VA employees and more accountability.

“It makes sure that every three years they go back through retraining to have the most up-to-date training in terms of suicide prevention,” he said.

The package, which has been in the works for months, is called the “Care Package” and would address nationwide shortages in the Department of Defense and VA through training for physician assistants.

"This 'Care Package' continues our commitment to servicemember and veteran mental health by ensuring that we have a sufficient number of and the best trained mental health providers to serve all our men and women in uniform," Donnelly said in a statement.

Lawmakers, baffled by the actions of VA leaders, said this week’s revelations at the Indianapolis VA Medical Center are another example of why more Congressional action is needed.

“We’re trying to find out why the VA didn’t take steps earlier,” Donnelly said. “This email was a disgrace and our devotion, our obligation is to our veterans.”

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