Facing congressional scrutiny over a report of poor care given to veterans at a Veterans Administration nursing home in Philadelphia, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has slammed the door on the release of similar reports nationwide.

In a directive dated Friday, VA officials in Washington, D.C., informed local agency officials that inspection reports like the one on the VA nursing home on Civic Center Boulevard are not to be released to the public.

The directive came less than a week after the Tribune-Review disclosed details of a 2008 report on the nursing home that concluded the VA "failed to provide a safe and sanitary environment for their residents."

Such reports from the Long Term Care Institute - which the VA hired to inspect its facilities - are considered "protected" documents under the provisions of a federal law designed to promote improved quality, the directive states.

Timothy Graham, chief of the public information act division of the Veterans Health Administration in Washington, D.C., said the Philadelphia report should not have been released because it was a quality assurance document protected from disclosure under federal law.

VA officials did not respond to questions about whether those who issued the Philadelphia report would be punished.

"I received guidance on Friday through my chain of command, to let me know the Long Term Care Institute reports are protected documents and not subject to release under the Freedom of Information Act," said Dale Warman, spokesman for the VA in Philadelphia.

The report cited by the Tribune-Review was released by VA officials in Philadelphia under a public records request. It described how one veteran had to have his leg amputated after a serious infection had gone untreated for so long that it attracted maggots.

It also described blood-stained floors, a fly infestation and life-threatening treatment of veterans dependent on tube feeding.

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and U.S. Rep. Joseph Sestak - two Democrats vying for the Senate in next year's primary - visited the nursing home last week and questioned why it took a public records request to get the report made public.

Sestak called on VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki to "release any other inspection reports of this nature."

Withholding such documentation "only adds to the perception that the VA does not take the principles of accountability seriously," Sestak wrote in an e-mail response yesterday to the VA action.

"If the VA is unable to provide this necessary reform at the administrative level, legislation must be introduced," Sestak wrote in a letter to Shinseki.

Specter also disagreed with the report-release ban.

"This runs contrary to the VA's desire to be an open and accountable agency," his statement said. "I believe these documents should be made public."

Graham said the ban on release of the documents to the public would not bar congressional committees from requesting and obtaining the reports.

Both Specter and Sestak asked why the problems reported by the Long Term Care Institute did not show up in other inspections, including those done by the VA itself.

The Wisconsin-based institute, according to VA officials, conducted similar inspections of more than 100 VA facilities nationwide. Under last week's order, none of those reports will be made public.

The number of patients at the Philadelphia nursing home dropped from 240 to 120, in part from an admissions freeze initiated following the September 2008 inspection. The freeze was lifted earlier this year.