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VA Sec. Shulkin Removes Another Official, Promises Funds for Manchester VA

Peter Biello
VA Sec. David Shulkin speaking at the Manchester, N.H. VA Medical Center on Friday, August 4, 2017.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has removed a third top official from the Manchester VA.

Secretary Shulkin has removed Carol Williams, the medical center's director of nursing and patient care services. It's a move doctors who blew the whistle on problems with the Manchester VA had been calling for.

Shulkin made the announcement near the end of a day-long visit Friday to the Manchester VA that included meetings with the state's congressional delegation and the whistleblowers who came forward with allegations of unsanitary conditions and dangerous delays in care there.

After The Boston Globe published a report last month detailing their allegations, Shulkin removed from their positions Manchester VA director Danielle Ocker and chief of staff James Schlosser. Shulkin announced Friday that the VA is conducting a nationwide search for their replacements.

Shulkin also announced that the VA will receive $7 million to support the VA's recovery from flood damage caused by a burst pipe and $5.4 million for a new center for coordinated care. Another $18 million in construction projects has been planned for the Manchester VA.

Shulkin says this center, to be led by a physician, will "help make sure that when veterans go out into the community that they're not lost in the community and not taking as long as it's been taking in the (Veterans) Choice Program."

Whistleblower Stewart Levenson was skeptical of how beneficial these funds will be. "This money does no one any good if it's administered in a horrible manner, as it has been."

Levenson and other whistleblowers have complained of a bureaucracy that prioritizes budgetary concerns and leaves patients without what they say is the care they need.

The whistleblowers also criticized Shulkin's decision to appoint Dr. Michael Mayo-Smith, director of the New England VA System, as the leader of a task force that will look for ways to deliver more services to New Hampshire veterans.

"We feel he is part of the problem," Levenson says.

In response to the whistleblowers' call for his removal, a spokesperson for VA New England Healthcare System sent the following statement: "VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector and Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection are conducting a top-to-bottom review, including all allegations in the Boston Globe article. The department has been clear about the importance of transparency, accountability and rapidly fixing any and all problems brought to our attention, and we will do so."

Dr. Ed Kois is another of the whistleblowers. He says the tenor of the discussion he and other whistleblowers had with Shulkin was collegial.

"He talked to us as a doctor to other doctors and other care providers," says Kois. Shulkin is a board-certified internist with a medical degree.

Kois says he described his concerns about a burdensome bureaucracy to Shulkin, who later said at the press conference that getting rid of bureaucracy is not an easy thing to do, "but you have a leadership team that understands that they're accountable to the veterans, but you better listen to your clinicians and your staff, because they're caring for their veterans."

Shulkin says none of the problems brought to his attention are unsolvable. "I think there's an answer to all of them," he says. "We're going to get an answer to all of them. And I did not find that the whistleblowers were unreasonable."

Shortly after removing the Manchester VA's top two administrators, Shulkin ordered a "top to bottom" review of the whistleblowers' allegations. That investigation is now underway and it's unclear when the it will be completed.

Congresswoman Annie Kuster, the lead Democrat on the House VA Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, says she will convene a field hearing on September 18th. The exact time and location of the field hearing have not yet been announced.

A report by the task force formed by Dr. Mayo-Smith is due by January 1, 2018. 

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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