- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The former director of a veterans’ hospital in Madison inherited a far higher-profile challenge last month when he moved to a similar position at an embattled Tomah facility currently under investigation for overprescribing narcotics.

John Rohrer was appointed to lead the Tomah medical center about two weeks ago after the previous director was reassigned and its chief of staff was placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the federal probes.

An initial investigation by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found patients at the facility were more likely than patients at other VA hospitals to receive high doses of narcotics, as well as combinations of narcotics and benzodiazepines, a mixture experts say can be deadly. That probe also found a culture of fear among staff at the hospital that impacted patient care.

Rohrer spoke with The Associated Press Wednesday in a phone interview about his plans for improving conditions at the center.

Q: Do you have any experience in handling a crisis situation like Tomah?

A: “I have 25 years of experience in the VA in different management areas and there’s always something going on. If you’re asking me if I’ve stepped into a situation with this much attention, I’d have to say, ‘No.’ But what is needed and what I do have a lot of experience in is communication. My leadership style lends to almost any crisis situation.”

Q: What’s your plan for rebuilding veteran and staff trust at Tomah?

A: “That’s one thing I can’t expect to have after being here for just a week and a half … I know I’ll have to earn it. By being visible and by working with people, I think that will help develop trust.”

Q: What about creating a sense of accountability?

A: “The staff needs to know they are being held accountable and things are being done fairly. We are going to use a strategy called ‘stop the line.’ If you see something that could potentially harm a patient, you should be able to bring that up without fear of reprisal.”

Q: The hospital has a history of retaliatory behavior. How do you intend to address that?

A: “We will let them know that it is just not acceptable. It is not to be tolerated, quite frankly. We have to find a better way of knowing what is happening, we need to listen.”

Q: You come to the hospital at the center of multiple probes, how will you use the results of those investigations?

A: “We do these investigations so we can get, on a piece of paper or a spreadsheet, all they find. At some point we need to assign responsibility to address these results … It gives us a blueprint to move forward, an action plan we can work from.”

Q: What conversations have you had with staff?

A: “I’ve told staff at meetings that it could get a little darker here for a while with the hearing that was held this week and as reports come out, we’ll be in the media spotlight. But these are opportunities. These are going to help us get out of this.”

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Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bydanaferguson


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