Top officials removed at Manchester VA after allegations of poor care and conditionsBy MICHAEL COUSINEAU
New Hampshire Union Leader
July 16. 2017 8:27PM
MANCHESTER — Two top officials at the Manchester VA Medical Center have been removed from their posts pending a review of whistleblower allegations of poor care and conditions, officials announced Sunday.
“The VA Office of the Medical Inspector and the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection are being sent in beginning Monday to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the Manchester VAMC,” including reviewing allegations published in the Boston Sunday Globe, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Effective immediately, Danielle S. Ocker, the medical center director, and James E. Schlosser, chief of staff, were removed pending the review, according to a VA spokesman.
“I’m very encouraged by their willingness to take immediate action, to be transparent with it,” Gov. Chris Sununu told the New Hampshire Union Leader.
Sununu, who talked with U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin on Sunday, alluded to previous complaints about slow and poor service at veterans hospitals around the country.
“Despite previous administrations who swept issues under the rug, Secretary Shulkin has proven that he is willing to take immediate action so that we can restore confidence in the system,” Sununu said in a statement.
The Boston Sunday Globe reported that 11 physicians and medical employees — including the hospital’s retiring chief of medicine and former chief of surgery — had contacted a federal whistleblower agency. The Globe Spotlight Team reported that the Manchester VA was “endangering patients.”
That whistleblower agency, the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel, found a “substantial likelihood” of legal violations, gross mismanagement, abuse of authority, and a danger to public health, according to a January letter obtained by the Globe to one of the doctors who alleged wrongdoing.
“I have never seen a hospital run this poorly — every day it gets worse and worse,” said Dr. Stewart Levenson, chief of medicine, an 18-year hospital veteran who was among the whistleblowers. “I never thought I would be exposing the system like this. But I went through the system and got nowhere.”
Shulkin, the Veterans Affairs secretary, said Sunday: “These are serious allegations, and we want our veterans and our staff to have confidence in the care we’re providing. I have been clear about the importance of transparency, accountability and rapidly fixing any and all problems brought to our attention, and we will do so immediately with these allegations.”
Met with Shaheen, Kuster
Some of the doctors previously met last year with U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, and Rep. Annie Kuster, D-NH, to discuss their concerns.
“The reports concerning the Manchester VA Medical Center are simply unacceptable,” Kuster said in a statement Sunday. “Our veterans deserve much better. I was deeply concerned when I met last year with the group of VA doctors. As a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, I brought these concerns to the Office of the Inspector General. I appreciate the seriousness with which Secretary Shulkin is taking this matter, and I will continue to monitor the investigation closely and provide assistance through the House VA Committee.”
In a statement, Shaheen said, “No veteran should experience the substandard care described in this report. “After being informed of these allegations in a meeting with doctors from the Manchester VA, I raised their concerns with the VA Office of Special Counsel and the VA Office of the Inspector General for further investigation,” Shaheen said. “I will continue to work with the VA and, going forward, Secretary Shulkin to investigate these claims and urge that the agency immediately address any shortfalls.”
Boston Globe report
According to the newspaper’s report:
• “A Boston neurosurgeon lamented that several Manchester patients sent to him had suffered needless spinal damage, including paralysis, because the hospital had not provided proper care for a treatable spine condition called cervical myelopathy.” wrote the Globe.
“Only in 3rd World countries is it common to see patients end up as disabled from myelopathy as the ones who have been showing up after referral from you,” wrote Dr. Chima Ohaegbulam of New England Baptist Hospital, to a doctor at the Manchester VA in 2014, according to the Globe.
• Galen Warman, an Air National Guard veteran from Concord, injured his neck in a car accident in 2007 and later developed severe back pain. “I was eating painkillers like Chiclets,” he told the Globe.
Warman never had a MRI of his neck during his eight years visiting the Manchester VA until a doctor saw him in 2015 and ordered the test, which showed severe spinal cord compression. Warman had successful surgery.
“It was just a new lease on life,” the 66-year-old Warman told the Globe.
• Three patients had their surgeries canceled last month when two kits of surgical instruments supposedly sterilized showed what appeared to be rust or blood stains.
• The Globe reported doctors stopped using one of four operating rooms last October. One nurse told the newspaper that she had seen flies in that operating room since she started working there 16 years earlier.
A Manchester VA spokesman told the Globe that Manchester had dealt with the fly infestation since at least 2007, spending $1.1 million that year to repair masonry, which was partly to control pests. The hospital also spends about $55,000 a year on pest control.
Four stars out of five
The VA gave the Manchester hospital four stars out of a possible five when the department rated hospitals in 2016, according to the newspaper. Manchester was ranked above average for both the overall patient experience as well as job satisfaction for employees. The national VA also ranked Manchester near the top for minimizing the amount of time patients had to wait to see both primary care providers and specialists.
A spokesman for the VA in Washington, Gina Screen, told the Globe that the hospital earned its four-star rating.
“While there are known breaches to Manchester VA Medical Center’s environmental standards as it relates to cluster flies in one of the surgical suites, all appropriate actions have been taken” to fix the problem, she wrote.
David Kenney, chairman of the NH State Veterans Advisory Committee, said the Globe article “doesn’t bring up anything on the progress that has been made” at the hospital. He said the star-rating system “can be misconstrued in the public eye” and perhaps a new system should be developed.
Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-NH, said, “Today’s Spotlight report is deeply concerning. I support the Department of Veterans Affairs’ decision to conduct a full investigation and will continue to closely monitor this situation. New Hampshire veterans deserve the highest standard of care.”
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-NH, said “the poor conditions and quality of care alleged by whistleblowers at the Manchester VA are completely unacceptable.” She called for a full-scale investigation.