Health Care

VA gives ‘totally insufficient’ response to Missouri senator query about vet’s death

A man named Dale Farhner died in May after a confrontation with Kansas City VA Medical Center police. The VA has declined to provide any information about his death.
A man named Dale Farhner died in May after a confrontation with Kansas City VA Medical Center police. The VA has declined to provide any information about his death.

The Kansas City VA Medical Center has declined for months to provide The Star documents, audio and video related to the death of a veteran following an altercation with a VA police officer in May.

Now the VA headquarters is denying Congress the information.

In a letter dated Jan. 18, the VA’s executive in charge, Richard Stone, wrote to U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill that the VA won’t release the information to them because the death of Dale Farhner is still under investigation.

Blunt noted that it took the VA almost two months to respond to the query that he and McCaskill sent demanding answers about Farhner’s death.

“Their response is totally insufficient,” Blunt said. “I will continue pressing the VA to provide the information we have asked for and expect them to be more forthcoming.”

McCaskill, now a political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, agreed.

“That response says nothing,” McCaskill said. “Obviously much more information must be forthcoming to the public and, more importantly, this veteran’s family.”

Farhner, of Kingston, Mo., was 66 when he died.

The Star filed a request in May for information about his death under the Freedom of Information Act, after learning about the incident from an anonymous tip.

The VA responded July 7 with an emailed letter saying it had identified “nine documents totaling 18 pages of written records, and one video, and one audio recording” relevant to the request.

But VA records manager Laura Hughes wrote that she was withholding all of it “based on the open/pending status of the Veterans Health Administration Office of Security & Law Enforcement review.”

“Based upon the information available to me I believe release of the records could potentially impair the deliberative process,” Hughes wrote, “as release of the pre-decisional document to the public would likely negatively impact a frank discussion on matters of policy between subordinates and supervisors.”

The Star lodged a formal appeal of that decision on July 20. It is still pending.

After The Star published a story last month about Farhner’s death, internal VA documents leaked to USA Today revealed that Farhner and his son were leaving the Kansas City VA at 4801 Linwood Blvd. on May 10 when a VA police officer pulled him over for driving the wrong way in the parking lot.

Farhner reportedly made “inappropriate gestures and physically threatening motions with his arm.” The officer, who has not been identified publicly, decided to take him to the ground and handcuff him.

“While being brought to the ground, the patient seemed to suffer some injuries,” USA Today quoted the internal report as saying. “Upon arrival to the Emergency Department the patient was non-verbal, moaning with a decreased level of consciousness.”

Farhner was taken to the University of Kansas Hospital, where he died of a brain hemorrhage. According to USA Today, the VA documents don’t make any determination about whether Farhner’s death was due to the injuries he suffered during the confrontation with the officer. Testing done at KU Hospital also revealed possible evidence of a stroke.

The Jackson County Medical Examiner, which performed Farhner’s autopsy, has repeatedly declined to comment to The Star on his cause of death, citing the open investigation.

Farhner’s sister has told The Star that his family hired an attorney, but she declined to comment further.

The VA’s Office of Inspector General released a report last month that said VA Police departments nationwide suffer from a lack of oversight and accountability.

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Kansas City Star health reporter Andy Marso was part of a Pulitzer Prize-finalist team at The Star and previously won state and regional awards at the Topeka Capital-Journal and Kansas Health Institute News Service. He has written two books, including one about his near-fatal bout with meningitis.