The VA’s credibility crisis

Officially, the decision as to whether the Veterans Administration will perform a thorough Environmental Impact Statement on the controversial 36-acre site selected for a new medical center is months overdue. Officially, nobody knows why the decision, expected last spring, is belated — or when it might be made. Officially we’re getting mixed messages — more vexations that seem to hex the project‘s enablers.

Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who approved the site, resigned under fire in the aftermath what Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., of the House Veterans Affairs Committee calls “the biggest scandal in VA history.” At a public meeting three years ago, former Louisville VAMC Director Wayne Pfeffer, a voting member of the site selection board, protested (too much) the allegation that developer Jonathan Blue was in bed with the VA. Pfeffer was reassigned to Hawaii, where U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an Army captain twice deployed to Iraq, called for his termination, writing, “He has been dishonest with me and the public, and has not been forthright or transparent with information.” The hex continued this month, potentially blemishing the credibility of two hospital officials and calling into question the judgment of two TV newsrooms.

It’s as if the chosen “Midlands” site at the interchange of I-264 and KY 22 (Old Brownsboro Road) were a sacred Native American burial ground and spirits are rising to crush their molesters — with collateral damage. This month’s menacing mystery began with an Aug. 3 local VAMC news conference from which two very different headlines emerged. In a story titled, “VA hospital construction to begin in 2017,” WLKY-TV updated project planning and design. WDRB-TV, by contrast, focused on “decreased wait time” for patients at the Zorn Avenue facility. Buried within both broadcast packages was much bigger news — if it‘s true.

“The new VA hospital project is hinging on an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS),” reported WLKY. WDRB aired that the proposed $800 million complex is moving slowly “while the VA awaits the final environmental impact report.” The stories confused committed groups of citizens whose thoughts parallel those of my friend Judy, a registered nurse who once worked at our VAMC and believes the site selection was “the dumbest decision … in the history of Louisville.” For years, they insisted that a full-blown, in-depth EIS is required by the National Environmental Policy Act and by the VA’s own mandates. Their position is backed by Grow Smart Louisville, its attorneys and Metro Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7, who holds a master’s degree in environmental engineering and sponsored a unanimously approved resolution advocating an EIS.

The VA has steadfastly disputed the requirement. Days after the broadcasts, a source alerted me and spoke of overhearing that a hospital spokeswoman said VAMC Director Martin Traxler, one of two presenters at the news conference, “misspoke.” Last Friday afternoon, that spokeswoman, Laura Schafsnitz, told me, “I wasn’t at the news conference, so I can’t guaran— I mean, I didn’t say that Mr. Traxler misspoke; I said the line in the article was misinterpreted … Unfortunately, the line and the phrase they used was very misleading.” Schafsnitz added that the VA is awaiting the final draft of an Environmental Assessment. “An environmental assessment has been performed, she said. “However, no Environmental Impact has been performed.”

It seems incredible that two TV stations would use the phrase “environmental impact” if it hadn’t been uttered. And it’s stunning that Schafsnitz, with more than “15 years of experience as a public relations professional with particular experience in the areas of media campaign development and internal/external communications strategies,” according to her LinkedIn profile, didn’t raise merry, bloody hell until the stations corrected the misinformation — unless they got it right. “Are you under the impression that the decision (to perform an EIS) has been made and just not disclosed?” She replied “I have no idea.”

Three years ago, in an editorial titled, “Public deserves answers from VA,” the C-J wrote, “First, the federal government decided to put a new VA hospital on a site where virtually no one wants it — at one of the most traffic-clogged interchanges in the East End.” Last January, Traxler reacted to widespread panic that a draft Environmental Assessment trivialized the issue. According to WFPL, he acknowledged the crowd’s mistrust of traffic projections plotted jointly by the VA and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. “Clearly the folks here are not confident with what we’ve done here, “he said. “We’re going to do our best to give them information so that they don’t feel like we’re progressing without any regard for what it means to them as taxpayers.”