Dr. Funk, VA Whistleblower, Says Task Force Producing Detailed Review of Care

Mar 1, 2018

Dr. Erik Funk, during a congressional VA field hearing in September, 2017.
Credit Peter Biello/NHPR

The task force looking at the future of health care for New Hampshire's veterans has drafted some suggestions for improvements at the Manchester VA, and those suggestions do not include the construction of a new full-service VA hospital.

This task force was put together last year after whistleblowers came forward with allegations of mismanagement at the VA. Dr. Erik Funk was the sole whistleblower to be named to the task force. He joins NHPR's Peter Biello to talk about these preliminary findings.

What were you hoping for at the beginning of the task force's work and how has that changed?

You know, being a clinician, I did feel that having a full service or at least an inpatient facility here in Manchester would be something that many of the clinicians here as well as the veterans would prefer. I think that the the overall sense that the committee has understood is that veterans wish to be treated locally. And the obvious solution was to formulate, to develop an inpatient facility here. Unfortunately the practicality of that has been a reality that I've gradually came to accept is that because of cost -- which is quite extensive, because of the acquisition of funding and the process needs to go through with respect to development and design, it would really take many years and perhaps five or ten years before an inpatient facility would become a reality. So we began to look at other options.

You're not going to be finding that there is a need for a full-service medical facility in Manchester. You are suggesting that some things be expanded, and some construction happen at the Manchester VA. What are you suggesting might be improved construction wise?

You know the findings or proposals have been to, you know, improve the physical plan of primary care, to potentially expand the CLC ,which is the inpatient geriatric unit here. And I think that both the veterans in New Hampshire as well as potentially, because this was a need from Vermont as well. And the other exciting aspect is, we were exploring -- this is in Connecticut -- but it's a center called the Errera Center. It's a contact point for veterans that need certain services, whether it be psychiatric services, whether it be opiate issues, whether it be homelessness. But it would be a multifactorial, multidisciplinary center located somewhere in Manchester and this is, again on the findings portion, I think would be something that would be very veteran-centric and help them coordinate their care. And I think that's one of the, I wouldn't say the main focus, but I think that's something that we're very strong about.

In this draft report, there was some mention of culture at the Manchester VA. And a suggestion that there should be a mechanism by which employees are not just encouraged to speak up but to do so and be rewarded for speaking up - all of that in the service of making things better for the veterans who get care there. What can you say about how the culture has changed since July, since the allegations first came forward?

Well I think the culture was unfortunately an issue, certainly not in all areas, but in certain areas I think that it was something that needed to be addressed. With the advent of with Al Montoya coming on board full time as a director, I think that he has been very forthcoming, very receptive and proactive with respect to not just trying but making, you know, embracing the employees here at the V.A. to improve the culture here and there's a committee of interested individuals who will participate in that and I think this is a significant improvement. And that's an improvement. I think this will make an impact on our culture here.

With the understanding that no decision-making process is 100 percent perfect, what can you say about the fairness of the deliberations of the task force?

So, I think the task force, in terms of its attention to detail with regard to veterans, the surveys that have been put out both face to face and also online surveys, with respect to exploring the various service needs, peaking with physicians and primary care here, I think it's been quite detailed in terms of its review. I'm very proud of the work that's been done. It's quite detailed.

(Dr. Erik Funk is one of the dozen whistleblowers who raised concerns about the Manchester VA last year. And he's the sole member of that group to serve on a task force looking at the future of health care for New Hampshire's veterans.)