(USA TODAY) WASHINGTON — An independent investigator found that Veterans Affairs officials glossed over problems pointed out by whistle-blowers — such as improperly cleaned medical instruments or psychiatric patients who go for years without evaluations — by declaring that the problems cause no potential harm to public health or safety.

“The VA, and particularly the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector, has consistently used a ‘harmless error’ defense, where the department acknowledges problems but claims patient care is unaffected,” Carolyn Lerner, who leads the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, wrote in a letter to President Obama on Monday. “This approach has prevented the VA from acknowledging the severity of systemic problems and from taking the necessary steps to provide quality care to veterans.”

Lerner wrote that veterans’ health and safety had been “unnecessarily put at risk.”

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