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Manchester VA Doctor Skeptical of Federal Investigation's Integrity

Peter Biello
Dr. Stewart Levenson was among the whistleblowers inside the Manchester VA Medical Center.

The Boston Globe published revelations on Saturday of dangerous delays in care and unsanitary conditions at the Manchester VA Medical Center.

Following the Globe report, VA Secretary David Shulkin removed the Medical Center's director, Danielle Ocker, and the chief staff, James Schlosser, from their positions. Shulkin also ordered an inspection of the facility by high-level VA officials.  

Doctor Stewart Levenson is one of the doctors who blew the whistle on conditions at the Manchester VA. Levenson is the Manchester VA's medical service chief, and he spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello on Monday.

Of the things you saw, what was the most disturbing?

Oh, where do I begin. There were a lot of disturbing issues. A few of my doctors would come to me about issues, I would take them through the chain of command, and I would really get nowhere. Every few months, I uses to send an email to the network director—I felt at one point that it was like a message in a bottle. I’d get a referral back from him that would state, these are matters that are best handled locally.

So the administrative channels just did not work.

No, they actually in some ways worked against us. 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, all through the idea that this Veterans Choice money was outside of the local medical center budget and we should spend that before spending medical center money.

The result was that patients were not getting care.

What did you make of the Boston Globe’s report? You had a hand in it, because you were talking to them.

I thought it hit the nail right on the head. It was accurate, matter of fact. In some ways it only skimmed the surface of the problems in Manchester.

Do you think the VA’s response was appropriate?

The VA’s response was that Dr. Shulkin would order an investigation. I’m a bit circumspect—I was at a leadership meeting this morning where they named the Office of Medical Inspector as the investigative body. I’ve had less than satisfactory experiences with that office.

Before we went to the Boston Globe, we had complained through the Office of the Medical Inspector, and we essentially got nowhere and we felt the investigation was biased.

So you’re concerned that the new investigation will be biased as well.

That’s definitely a concern.

There’s also some concern about whistleblowers. There are several of them, and you would count yourself among them, I imagine.

Yes, there are about a dozen of us, if not more. We are concerned. We have seen the beginnings of retaliation. Obviously they haven’t taken hold because the staff have been removed over the weekend. But before that, there was some concern from whistleblowers about retaliation.

Is this kind of thing unusual, in your experience, for the VA?

The VA is a very hierarchical organization in which people are afraid to come forward for reasons that may or may not be true. This is my first experience with being a whistleblower.

Unfortunately I think some of this behavior is endemic in the system. We’ve seen it in Phoenix and Cincinnati, and other areas where whistleblowers have been retaliated against.

Dr. James Schlosser has been removed from his duties, pending this investigation. Do you feel safe and secure in your job now that he is not there?

I feel safe in the fact that I’m leaving the VA in a couple of weeks. Before I went the track of being a whistleblower, I decided that my tenure at the VA was best ended.

I’ve spent eighteen years there. I love the patients I take care of—I feel the veterans are the best patients I’ve ever taken care of. So there is a sense of regret, but . . . I think I can move on to other things. 

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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