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VA Secretary Shulkin announces $30m investment in Manchester VA

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 04. 2017 5:16PM
Manchester lawyer Andrea Amodeo-Vickery, left, meets with reporters along with Dr. Stewart Levenson, right, and Dr. Ed Kois, center, after a private session with VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin about their complaints regarding care at the Manchester VA. (Kevin Landrigan/New Hampshire Union Leader)

MANCHESTER — U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin announced a $30 million investment, a study on how best to give New Hampshire veterans “full service” care and still more staff shake-up after meeting privately with whistleblowers, political leaders, staff and veterans at the Manchester VA Medical Center Friday.

Shulkin faced reporters with Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and the state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation and said complaints from whistleblowers about a stonewalling bureaucracy and deplorable conditions did not threaten him.

“I did not find the whistleblowers to be unreasonable,” Shulkin said. “They weren’t demanding, they just want to do better for their patients. Our interests were aligned, our hearts were together on this,” Shulkin said.

As a former private hospital executive, Shulkin said the complaints were alarming but not out of the ordinary.

“I wasn’t surprised by any of them. What I was surprised about was why was it taking so long to resolve these and why weren’t the clinicians being listened to,” Shulkin said.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, M.D., answers a question as U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, center, and U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, right, listen during a media session at the VA Center in Manchester Friday, Aug. 4, 2017. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)

Barely a few months on the job, Shulkin directed regional administrators to undertake a national search for a new director, a new medical chief of staff and a new director of nursing for the Manchester VA. Shulkin confirmed Friday Director of Nursing Services Carol Williams was recently relieved of her duties.

“What we need here is a new leadership team that will help bring this facility into the future and meet the needs of the veterans here,” Shulkin said.

Last month, Shulkin acted quickly after seeing a Boston Globe Spotlight report of “Third World” outcomes for patients with spinal ailments, a fly infestation in an operating room, unsanitary operating equipment and problems veterans face getting outside care through Veterans Choice.

He immediately removed the top two officials, Director Danielle Ocker and Chief of Staff James Schlosser, and installed White River Junction, Vt., VA medical executive Alfred Montoya as acting director.

“We have not found that there has been anything wrong that has been done. These are good, dedicated people,” Shulkin said.

“There are times in an organization, and this is my call, when you do need new leadership and I did want to do that.”

The new spending will include a $5 million coordination of care center, $7 million to fix damage caused by recent flooding and another $18 million in construction projects on the campus.

Shulkin said the task force finding in a report due out by Jan. 1 may not be for a full-service hospital but rather giving veterans access to all services by networking with community hospitals.

New Hampshire is the only state in the country without a full-service VA hospital.

The whistleblowers told reporters they found Shulkin to be a good listener but follow-through is what matters if the quality of patient care is to be improved.

“Some of these things they have been talking about for a long time but they don’t come to pass,” said Dr. Stewart Levenson, former chief of medicine at the Manchester VA. “Execution has always been the issue.”

Gov. Chris Sununu speaks as Sen. Maggie Hassan, left, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, center, listen during a media session at the VA Center in Manchester on Friday afternoon. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)

Sununu and the congressional delegation praised Shulkin’s initiatives but said the concerns of the whistleblowers needed to be addressed as well.

“I want to thank the employees for coming forward for being open and the veterans themselves for getting a chance to speak to the secretary,” Sununu said.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, both D-N.H., said they will maintain their oversight role to ensure the VA follows through on these and other commitments.

“It is a new day; it is absolutely a new day,” echoed U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H.

Earlier Friday, several patients and staff told Shulkin and the delegation during a town hall-style forum they had received good care in Manchester but there were delays and at times poor outcomes.

Russ Wheeler, a retired Marine from Merrimack, couldn’t complete telling his story before breaking down about his son, Jay, who lost both his legs and became blind following injuries from military airplane jumps and had recent complications after a minor procedure in Manchester.

“It was so infected and his blood count just went through the roof. He was airlifted to Concord and after being there a month and having two separate surgeries, he was in very tough shape,” Wheeler sobbed.

“He almost died twice.”

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