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After Delegation Push, Regional VA Director Removed From Manchester VA Task Force

Peter Biello
Dr. Michael Mayo-Smith, director of the VA New England Healthcare System, speaks at a congressional field hearing in September 2017.

The task force looking at the future of the Manchester VA Medical Center has a new co-chair.

Dr. Jennifer Lee is Senior Advisor to the Secretary of the VA. She replaces Michael Mayo-Smith as co-chair. Initially on Monday, the VA removed him as only from his role as co-chair. A statement released by the VA late Tuesday indicated he is no longer a member of the task force.

In the statement, Veterans Health Administration Executive in Charge Dr. Carolyn Clancy said, "Dr. Mayo-Smith served the panel well in its initial formation, but as the regional VA medical director, it’s important to have the panel remain independent of his views as it makes recommendations to the Veterans Health Administration on the future of VA health care in New Hampshire."

Mayo-Smith oversees the VA New England Healthcare System. VA Secretary David Shulkin had appointed him in August to assemble and lead the Manchester task force. Since then, Mayo-Smith has faced criticism from veterans and VA whistleblowers who accused him of complicity in the alleged leadership failures at the Manchester VA that resulted in patient harm.

New Hampshire's congressional delegation had been urging Secretary Shulkin to relieve Mayo-Smith of his leadership duties on the task force. In a statement, Senator Maggie Hassan praised the decision.

"I appreciate that VA Secretary Shulkin heeded our call to change the leadership of the Manchester VA Task Force. I look forward to working with Dr. Lee and the rest of the Task Force to ensure that New Hampshire veterans receive the full service care that they need and have earned," Hassan said.

Congresswoman Annie Kuster also applauded the move. "We know that veterans have faced unacceptable challenges in access to quality care at Manchester VAMC and throughout New Hampshire," Kuster said in a statement. "Our veterans deserve better and this Task Force should carry with it the weight necessary to enact real change."

Attorney Andrea Amodeo-Vickery represents many of the whistleblowers who brought concerns about the Manchester VA to light. She says the whistleblowers had been pushing for this, too.

"The whistleblowers made it crystal clear to Shulkin and the congressionals that Mayo-Smith was part of the problem," she said. "He was a big part of the problem and he should not be a part of the task force. So they heard us, they listened, and they got some action."

In addition to Dr. Lee, Major General Gretchen S. Dunkelberger was added to the panel. Dunkelberger is Former Air National Guard Assistant to the Surgeon General, United States Air Force.

The task force meets for its first public meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week at the Manchester VA. Recommendations by the task force are due in January 2018.

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