Regional VA Director Takes Heat at Congressional Hearing in N.H.

Sep 18, 2017

Lawmakers questioned officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs and a VA whistleblower today at a congressional hearing in Pembroke.

Convened by Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster of New Hampshire and Republican Rep. Jack Bergman of Michigan, the field hearing was an attempt to understand the allegations of leadership failure behind the mismanagement of patient care at the Manchester VA.

About a dozen doctors came forward earlier this summer with allegations of dangerous delays in care that left some patients paralyzed.

Since July, three of the top four leaders of the medical center were removed from their jobs. An investigation is underway.

Bergman, who is Chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, criticized Michael Mayo-Smith, leader of the New England VA System, for not responding sooner to concerns brought to him by Manchester VA doctors.

"It should not take a news report or a congressional hearing for VA leadership to respond to veterans' and employees' concerns. Your job is to lead proactively, not reactively."

Mayo-Smith said he was not aware of all of the whistleblowers' allegations when they were first made public by the Boston Globe in July.

Kuster and Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan questioned the VA's plans going forward, stressing the need for a "full-service" facility that would give veterans a wider range of services.

Mayo-Smith said a task force he co-chairs is looking at options for New Hampshire veterans. "Everything is on the table in terms of what the options are," he said. "Our goal is to bring a set of recommendations that would allow veterans to receive here, within the state, a full set of services."

Only one of the dozen whistleblowers from the Manchester VA spoke: Dr. Ed Kois, a pain management specialist who says patients became wheelchair-bound because their condition, myelopathy, was not treated in a timely manner.

"Part of the issue with myelopathy is that it occurred in absence of treatment, not necessarily because of bad treatment," he said. 

Kois added that investigators need to talk to the patients, not simply look at the records. "You have to go take a history and examine the patients." He said patients can reveal in interviews key details that can't be found in written records.

The report from the VA task force co-chaired by Mayo-Smith looking at the future of veterans' healthcare in New Hampshire is due in January.

An investigation into the role of former Manchester VA Medical Center Director Danielle Ocker and former chief of staff James Schlosser is expected to be completed within two to four weeks, Mayo-Smith said, though he noted that could change.