Manchester VA

The Manchester VA Medical Center

MANCHESTER — A Trump administration watchdog group concluded that most of the allegations whistleblowers at the Manchester VA Medical Center have made regarding the leadership style of upper management were groundless.

Dr. Michael Mayo-Smith, the VA’s regional network director who was forced into retirement due to fallout from the whistleblower scandal, said he had to hire a lawyer to get this 10-month-old, 25-page report from the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

“It is somewhat embarrassing the VA took the rather abrupt action against the local and regional leadership only to find out that there was not a basis for it,” Mayo-Smith said during an interview.

But independent reviews from the General Accounting Office to the Government Accountability Project said this VA investigative arm in its short tenure had a history of doing reports favorable to management and imposed discipline against senior executives in only 1 out of every 1,000 cases.

Dr. W. Ed Kois and former VA New England medical director Stewart Levenson, two of the whistleblowers, said this is a desperate public relations bid from Mayo-Smith to try to resurrect his reputation. Anyone who is objective would view this report to be a whitewash, they said.

“This is disgusting, absolutely disgusting, that the report would attempt to vindicate the VA and the disgraced former network director is touting this report as his vindication,” Levenson said during an interview.

“You have a bad former administrator trying to get back some of his credibility by relying on this bad report.”

Delegation backs whistleblowers

Meanwhile, the three current and future members of the New Hampshire delegation who helped convince VA national leadership to sack the Manchester management team all said they back the whistleblowers and not the former management in response to this latest report.

U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., had this past summer demanded then-VA Acting Secretary Peter O’Rourke give her an update about this report.

She never received it until Mayo-Smith disclosed his copy.

“While I continue to review the OAWP report, I remain concerned with the ability of the VA to properly identify failures within its own operations and will continue to press Secretary (Robert) Wilkie to come to New Hampshire to explain the findings of the VA’s investigation,” said Kuster, who is in line to chair a House subcommittee on VA oversight during the next Congress in 2019.

“Granite State veterans deserve better.”

In September 2016, the whistleblowers first approached U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., with their complaints about “third world” conditions. She advised and they brought them to the VA’s Office of Special Counsel.

“While I review the findings in this report, I’m grateful for the efforts of the whistleblowers who have been instrumental in changing the culture at the Manchester VAMC,” Shaheen said.

“Their efforts combined with the recommendations of the VA New Hampshire Vision 2025 Task Force will improve services for veterans who should always be at the center of the discussion.”

A spokesman for the national VA focused not on this report but systemic improvements that have been made in Manchester, including hiring more than 100 staff members, creating an office of community care and deploying two suicide prevention coordinators on site.

“The Manchester VA Medical Center is under new leadership and on a new path and has taken a number of steps to rebuild trust, improve care and provide better service to New Hampshire area veterans,” said Curt Cashour, press secretary for the VA.

U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said that new local leadership has made a difference.

“The Manchester VA Medical Center has been making encouraging progress under Director Al Montoya, but we know that there is still more work to do including swiftly implementing the recommendations of the VA New Hampshire Vision 2025 Task Force,” Hassan said.

Mayo-Smith said the notion this report was a creation of top VA management to paper over problems was indefensible.

“This sense there is a whitewash or a coverup is absurd. Their job is to hold senior leadership accountable,” Mayo-Smith said.

“This is a pretty thorough report and it’s believable.”

Under Montoya, Kois has gotten a nurse and a social worker to support the spinal cord clinic he runs in Manchester.

Both moves have dramatically improved care and morale, he said.

“It has been the free press that has started to expose the problems in the system,” Kois said.

“Reports like this are corrosive by not getting any objective feedback; they do the system a disservice.

“This is the fixer. If we have a problem, they go to the fixer. They give us a thorough report that says, ‘Nothing to see here.’ We file it away and move on.”

After sacking Manchester Director Danielle Ocker and Chief of Staff James Schlosser, then-VA Secretary David Shulkin asked for this accountability office to do a report on leadership and for the Office of the Medical Inspector to review the quality of care charges.

“Although the whistleblower letter characterized the leadership style of the Manchester VAMC Quadrad as ‘insular and not focused on patient care,’ we disagree,” this report concluded.

It goes on to insist in response to every allegation that management’s response was quick, decisive and helpful.

“There was substantial evidence that when issues arose the medical center leadership team was proactive and transparent in dealing with them,” the report said.

The only admission of an internal problem in this report was staff unrest.

“While we did not find that senior leaders engaged in misconduct or malfeasance, we did find there was a clear rift between some clinic staff and leadership,” the report noted.

The only finding it gave any credence to was that the third-party provider for Veterans Choice, Health Net, created chaos in treatment when it kicked back to Manchester 65 percent of its referrals.

Manchester’s medical leadership was not at fault, the report maintains. It concluded no harm, no foul.

“At the time of this report there have been no cases of harm identified that can be directly attributed to failures in the consult management process,” the report said.

In July the GAO reviewed this office and found it let VA employees who were the target of allegations review or take part in these investigations.

“This could make the whistleblower feel uncomfortable or intimidated,” the GAO warned.

“This practice has led to confusion regarding the role and responsibilities of OAWP personnel.”

Another independent watchdog, the Project on Government Oversight, said the office “failed to discipline higher-ups at the VA.”

The group the whistleblowers first went to, the Office of Special Counsel, has yet to go public about its reaction to this report or the one on quality of care that also rejected many of the whistleblower allegations.

Kois said he knows the special counsel has been critical of both reviews.

“The Office of Special Counsel is going to weigh in on this. I’m going to let that play out and it could come by early next year,” Kois said.

“The present system has buried any feedback that they didn’t want but it won’t stay that way.”

klandrigan@unionleader.com