Whistleblowers Come Forward Over Problems At New Hampshire VA Hospital

Originally published on August 4, 2017 7:49 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Trump administration has made improving the Department of Veterans Affairs a public priority. That makes this an important moment in New Hampshire today. The head of the VA is going to meet with doctors and other employees at the VA's medical center in Manchester who turned whistleblower after concluding their patients could not get proper care. New Hampshire Public Radio's Peter Biello reports.

PETER BIELLO, BYLINE: When Dr. Ed Kois left his private practice to lead the Spine and Pain Clinic at the Manchester VA, he was surprised to see so many patients developing spine injuries.

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ED KOIS: Not because they were hit by a bullet or fell off a truck or a tank ran over them, but because they were just basically allowed to sit and no one was providing adequate treatment.

BIELLO: That's Kois speaking with vets this week at a forum in Manchester. He's one of about a dozen whistleblowers who went to The Boston Globe with these and other concerns. VA Secretary David Shulkin will meet with whistleblowers today, and Kois is asking the veterans to write letters that he can hand-deliver to Shulkin.

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KOIS: We're not going to solve it by ourselves, but we need your input and your help.

BIELLO: The Manchester VA could use the help. In addition to delays in care for patients with spine issues, it also allegedly delayed purchasing necessary equipment and struggled for more than a decade with an infestation of flies. Dr. Stewart Levenson is one of the whistleblowers. He says he complained through the VA's internal system, but that often backfired.

STEWART LEVENSON: Whenever there was an opportunity, funding was cut. Programs which I took a great deal of pride in growing over the years were being decimated.

BIELLO: He says the Manchester VA's administration sent patients elsewhere to keep their costs down. And the result was that patients weren't receiving adequate care. One day, after The Boston Globe's report, VA Secretary Shulkin took two top administrators off the job pending the results of a new, quote, "top-to-bottom review." He said in a statement, quote, "Manchester veterans deserve no less." Galen Warman of Concord served in the Army and Air Force. He's one of the more than 70 patients cited by these whistleblowers as victims of painful delays in care. He says he believes Shulkin will fix the things that he can.

GALEN WARMAN: Because he's going to answer to the man. And he certainly don't want to be handled like one of the guys on "The Apprentice" - you're fired.

BIELLO: President Donald Trump recently signed the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which is designed to make it easier to fire bad VA employees and protect whistleblowers like Ed Kois from retaliation. Dr. Ed Chibaro, another of the whistleblowers, says he's watching for something subtle. For example, his bosses could load him up with more patients than he could possibly care for.

ED CHIBARO: I see a lot of patients in a day. And I've been looking at it. And I've been saving my sheets to, you know, try to make some sort of documentation on what they're doing.

BIELLO: Secretary Shulkin is planning to meet with New Hampshire's congressional delegation today, as well as the whistleblowers - including Kois.

KOIS: I can't possibly describe the whole problem in a half hour or an hour or however long they give us. But I can if they want to work with us.

BIELLO: Kois says he hopes he can work with Shulkin to cut back the bureaucracy that gets between him and his patients. For NPR News, I'm Peter Biello in Concord, N.H. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.