- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 8, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The director of the U.S. Veterans Affairs’ Montana Health Care system announced his resignation Wednesday, as the agency conducts an internal investigation into allegations of misconduct by senior leadership.

John Ginnity, who became the Montana VA system’s interim director in 2014 and was named to the permanent position last year, will depart July 8, he said in a letter to staff released by U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke’s office and confirmed by VA officials.

Ginnity’s letter did not specify a reason for his resignation, though he said his family and his health are his main priorities.

“I will continue to support Veterans as I have done faithfully for over 25 years of service through other opportunities,” he said in the letter.

The VA’s Office of Accountability Review is investigating allegations of senior leadership misconduct at the Fort Harrison medical center, according to a May 23 letter from VA Under Secretary for Health David Shulkin to U.S. Sen. Steve Daines. Daines’ office released the letter with a statement from the Republican senator that said, “Montana veterans deserve a leader who will ensure their needs are being met and the Montana VA has not lived up to this commitment.”

Shulkin’s letter does not name Ginnity as a subject of the investigation, and VA Montana spokesman Mike Garcia said Ginnity’s resignation is not related to it.

“Right now there is no pending or proposed disciplinary action on Mr. Ginnity,” Garcia said.

The investigation was prompted by allegations made by employees or former employees, and could target any of a few dozen people at or above the position of service chief at the Montana VA, Garcia said. He added that he does not know any details of the allegations.

Garcia noted that there have been several reviews of the Montana VA because such allegations are taken seriously, even when there is ultimately a finding of no merit.

Shulkin’s letter to Daines said that based on the initial evidence that was provided, investigators were interviewing additional witness interviews were required. The VA’s press office in Washington D.C. did not return a call for comment on the investigation.

A 2014 investigation into patient access problems throughout the VA’s health care system found problems with wait times at Fort Harrison. The audit said that patients there waited an average of 48 days for their first appointment with a primary doctor.

Since then, the VA has implemented a program that allows veterans to seek medical care from non-VA physicians. But Montana veterans have complained the program meant to shorten wait times has backfired, and health providers aren’t signing up.

Daines wrote to VA investigators in March and April that he received reports of doctors not being reimbursed by the agency, key positions going unfilled and a “toxic system” that includes retaliation against employees, poor access to care and extended vacation time by leadership.

Daines urged VA investigators to hold those at fault accountable.

Zinke said in a statement released by his office that Ginnity was unable to break down “the corrupt bureaucracy” of the VA and give the lower levels of the administration more authority and resources.

“He was passionate, but he was facing a wall of bureaucracy within the VA at all levels,” Zinke said.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said he met with VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who assured him that the VA will quickly find a new director.

Garcia said a plan for a temporary director will be in place before Ginnity’s departure. The VA is struggling to fill a leadership vacancy rate that is now more than 40 percent, he said.

“It has been a challenge to recruit and retain leaders in the VA system wide,” Garcia said.

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