Veterans can spot a retreat when they see one, and so can some members of Congress. After calling Inspector General Richard Griffin of the Department of Veteran Affairs on the carpet for his report asserting that the delays in care created by the secret wait lists in Phoenix, another VA official conceded the obvious — that delays substantially contributed to the death of up to 293 veterans seeking care at that facility. Republicans called this an about face, in the words of the New York Times:

In a contentious hearing before Congress, a senior official from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ watchdog agency acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday that delays in care had contributed to the deaths of patients at the department’s medical center in Phoenix.

The disclosure by an official from the department’s inspector general’s office, coming after more than two hours of tough, sometimes confrontational exchanges with members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, was a significant development in what has become a heated dispute over the quality of care at the Phoenix hospital, where revelations of secret waiting lists and other schemes to disguise long delays in care turned into a national scandal. …

At Wednesday’s hearing, the acting Veterans Affairs inspector general, Richard J. Griffin, stood firmly by the wording of the report.

But under questioning by Representative David Jolly, Republican of Florida, Dr. John D. Daigh, the assistant inspector general for health care inspections, conceded that medical-care delays in Phoenix had contributed to some patient deaths.

“Would you be willing to say that wait lists contributed to deaths of veterans?” Mr. Jolly asked.

“No problem with that,” Dr. Daigh replied. “The issue is cause.”

Dr. Daigh did not say how many times he believed medical-care delays had contributed to deaths in Phoenix. In addition to the six veterans who died after experiencing clinically significant delays, the inspector general’s office revealed Wednesday that 293 veterans had died out of 3,409 cases it reviewed in Phoenix.

In the same hearing, a retired VA doctor called the Phoenix DVA’s actions “a conspiracy, possibly criminal” at the office’s highest levels. Dr. Sam Foote angrily dismissed Griffin’s report as “a whitewash” with deliberately fuzzy math and impossible standards of proof designed to let VA leadership off the hook:

Dr. Sam Foote, a retired Phoenix VA doctor, accused the inspector general of stalling the investigation and protecting the senior officials responsible for perpetuating and hiding health care delays.

Foote also alleged that the inspector general deliberately used confusing language and suppressed the finding that 293 veterans died waiting for care, a figure that was not included in the report.

“This report is at best a whitewash and at worst a feeble attempt at a cover up,” Foote said.

“In my opinion, this was a conspiracy, possibly criminal, perpetrated by senior Phoenix leaders,” Foote testified. “The inspector general tries to minimize the damage done and the culpability of those involved by stating that none of the deaths can conclusively be tied to treatment delays.”

Well, that position has been conceded now, and rightly so. The issue here wasn’t whether these veterans had to wait a little longer than 14 days to see a doctor, but whether they ever got to see a doctor, and whether the VA was misinforming these and other veterans at other facilities of the need to follow up. The fraud was repetitive, widespread, and aimed at protecting the bureaucrats at the expense of their patients — who had no other choice but to stay in the abusive system.

The Arizona Republic wondered why the IG was so invested in perpetuating this fraud:

Finally, though, he acknowledged that long waits for see a doctor “may have contributed” to patient deaths and that “some might have lived longer” with timely care.

Why did it take a heated congressional hearing to draw out that truth? Why had the inspector general been so insistent on inserting a nonsense sentence into his report?

Of course he couldn’t “conclusively assert” that the absence of care caused the death of any veteran; no one could. But lengthy and unconscionable delays didn’t do those veterans any good. They may indeed have hastened death, cheating families of valuable time.

Common sense says as much. A congressional committee recognized that, for which it deserves credit. But why didn’t the inspector general? That remains the vexing question.

That’s a very good question. Perhaps Congress needs to look into the independence of this IG, and perhaps the inspectors-general corps as a whole, to see whether this administration has compromised their key oversight role within the executive branch.