Five members of Congress asked the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) to review the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) canine research approval process in response to public concerns about alleged animal welfare and oversight violations. In fiscal years (FY) 2018 and 2019, Congress mandated that the VA Secretary directly approve the use of appropriated funds for canine research.
The OIG found VHA conducted eight studies without the former or current Secretary’s direct approval, resulting in the unauthorized use of $393,606 in appropriated funds.VA continued research using canines after the passage of the funding restrictions, in part, because VHA executives perceived that then VA Secretary David Shulkin had approved the continuation of the studies before his March 28, 2018, departure. Former Secretary Shulkin denied approving each study for continuation after funding restrictions were enacted. The OIG did not confirm Dr. Shulkin had directly approved continuation in a March 28, 2018, meeting on his last day as Secretary. VHA also did not have a formal procedure to obtain and document the Secretary’s approval.
Unclear communication, inadequate recordkeeping, and failure to ensure approval decisions were accurately recorded and verified all contributed to VHA’s noncompliance. Providing unsupported and potentially inaccurate information on this topic could undermine public trust in VA and unnecessarily detract attention from its important statutory mission—supporting a wide range of authorized research on veterans’ health issues.
The OIG recommended the under secretary for health establish a process to obtain the Secretary’s approval for canine research as required by federal law, ensure approval is documented, and prevent appropriated funds from being spent without approval. The OIG also recommended the under secretary report to Congress on FY 2018 and 2019 funds spent on canine research without the Secretary’s approval.