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End the secrecy over the VA deaths

Criminal wrongdoing — let us call it what it is, murder — seems to have occurred at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Clarksburg. In fact, a serial killer may have claimed the lives of as many as 11 veterans there.

Yet federal authorities, despite hinting strongly they have a suspect, have not revealed whether he or she is in custody.

And VA Secretary Robert Wilkie may be as much in the dark about all this as the rest of us.

This is more than bureaucratic craziness. It is an inexcusable disregard of the welfare of veterans and their families.

As we have reported, the story broke not through the VA, but because of a lawsuit filed by the daughter of a veteran who died at the agency’s Louis A. Johnson Medical Center in Clarksburg in April 2018. An autopsy disclosed he was killed by a dose of insulin he did not require.

Then, reporters learned of a second death by the same cause. He was George N. Shaw Sr., 81, of Wallace.

As many as nine other patients may have been killed.

Only after a public and press outcry following the revelation about McDermott did the VA even deign to reveal that the person involved in the deaths was no longer in contact with patients.

It appears members of Congress were notified in early July that there was a problem at the hospital. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, has said he was told July 5 of a “medical and criminal investigation.”

On July 10, Manchin sent a letter to then-Acting VA Secretary Peter O’Rourke, urging that the public be informed of the situation. “Time is of the essence and the public deserves answers immediately. With each passing day, more and more Veterans could be unknowingly placed in harm’s way,” Manchin wrote.

On July 23, Wilkie was confirmed by the Senate as new head of the VA — but it appears even he was kept in the dark. He was asked about the situation in a television interview. Noting it is being handled by the Office of Inspector General, which acts independently of the rest of the VA, Wilkie said something startling: Regarding the investigation, “now we are actually learning what we know from the media,” the top official in charge of the veterans agency said.

Obviously, some details of an investigation need to be kept confidential. But information such as whether murder is suspected and the alleged killer is in custody is critical to any veteran in our area who needs hospital care.

Yet even the secretary of Veterans Affairs does not seem to know, or did not on Thursday.

The more we learn about the situation, the more questions arise about how the VA has handled it. Perhaps that explains the veil of secrecy.

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