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Veterans Affairs Makes Getting Information Even Harder

caption: The Veterans Affairs hospital in Seattle
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The Veterans Affairs hospital in Seattle
KUOW Photo/John Ryan

After Army veteran Eddie Creed died at the Seattle VA hospital in April 2012, his loved ones awaited official word: Why had he received a lethal overdose of morphine in his sleep there? The VA still hasn't released the independent investigation it commissioned concerning his accidental overdose.

"We need to have the information in order to come to terms. Let us have some closure, if there is closure, about what happened," said Sherry Evard, Creed's companion during the last years of his life.

Sherry Evard’s quest for closure was set back on Halloween, when the Department of Veterans Affairs quietly issued an agency-wide policy, making it more difficult for veterans, or anyone else, to monitor the VA's inner workings.

Now, all requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act must go through an additional layer of bureaucratic review in Washington, D.C., on top of the usual processing.

"Under no circumstances," the internal memo obtained by KUOW says, "will a FOIA Officer release records without approval of the designated officials."

KUOW discovered the new policy after filing a records request for investigations into Eddie Creed's death.

"Here's a new layer of review for an agency that is already doing poorly on response times, and it's probably going to make it worse," said Ken Bunting with the National Freedom of Information Coalition in Columbia, Mo. "Instead of improving the backlog, it's going to add to the backlog."

The VA receives tens of thousands of requests each year under the Freedom of Information Act. Those requests seek everything from budget numbers to criminal investigations.

Those seeking to learn what the VA is doing with taxpayers' money can sometimes get answers in a few days. Other times, it can take years.

The agency has a backlog of hundreds of unanswered requests.

Fourteen times last year, people requesting information from the VA died before receiving documents they had requested.

Shortly after President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he ordered all federal agencies to adopt a culture of openness and transparency. Open-government watchdogs have complained that federal performance has strayed far from that mandate.

VA spokespeople in Washington, D.C., told KUOW they were not immediately able to comment for this story.

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