MANCHESTER — U.S. Secretary of Veteran Affairs Robert Wilkie said the Manchester VA Medical Center “is one of the best stories in government” and he vowed to help local hospital directors break down barriers to ensure further improvement.
Wilkie met with staff a few weeks after the Manchester center was one of 17 centers selected across the nation to work on becoming “high reliability organizations” in the future.
Manchester Director Al Montoya served on the national steering committee that chose the centers to be part of the 18-month pilot program.
Montoya hosted the first meeting of the groups that will work on identifying best practices to reduce errors, prevent harm to patients and improve safety standards.
“Manchester is one of the best stories in government. Under Al Montoya’s leadership, we have seen an institution just erupt, not just in terms of its service but in the quality it provides,” Wilkie told reporters on Friday.
“This is one of the states where you don’t have to explain service to anybody.”
Wilkie was referring to Manchester’s transformation from a place that two years ago was the target of a dozen whistleblowers who had charged past management allowed “third-world conditions” to exist.
Manchester went from 123rd to the nation’s sixth most improved center, with 70 percent of the staff saying the center is the “best place to work.”
“We have been working hard with our community partners, our veterans, our employees to really make some solid improvements in the last fiscal year,” Montoya said during a recent interview. “This has been a joint effort and our staff at all levels have really bought in on doing all the little things to improve this place.”
Wilkie said a central focus will help lead the transition from the Veterans Choice program to what’s known as the Mission Act, which will begin in June. The choice program allows veterans to be referred to private care providers and have that care paid for by the VA.
The state’s congressional delegation fought hard for the choice option since New Hampshire is the only state in the 48 contiguous states without a full-service hospital.
But NH Democratic Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan said the choice program had problems and they supported legislation to create this more robust option.
“It is not libertarian VA. It is not giving the veteran a card and letting them go out and find health care in the private sector. It gives the veteran the option of getting that service elsewhere but it keeps the VA as the center of their health care,” Wilkie said.
“This allows the VA staff to rate any of the alternative health care providers.”
Wilkie said he’s determined to ensure that Montoya and all hospital directors have more autonomy to make improvements that work and are tailored to the local population.
“Anybody who sits in my office on the 10th floor and tries to tell Director Montoya how to run things ought to leave that job,” Wilkie said.
“If there are directives that are in the way, tell us and we’ll get rid of them.”
Wilkie said his agency needs to work with others to reduce the veteran suicide rate.
“Unfortunately we have found that of the 20 vets who commit suicide, 14 of them are outside our department so our job is an opening of the aperture to help us find these veterans,” Wilkie said.
“We have to tackle this issue in a way we haven’t before. I see it as part of a continuum of services that we provide, whether it is mental health, homelessness, drug addiction. We are changing the way we prescribe opioids. We are looking to our local partners to help provide more transitional housing. We’ve got to do more.”