- Associated Press - Friday, August 4, 2017

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) - The nation’s top veterans affairs official promised Friday to bring fresh leadership and additional funding to the embattled Manchester Veterans Administration Medical Center so sick and wounded service members can get the care they deserve.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin said recruitment would begin immediately for a new director, chief of staff and director of nursing and patient care services. He also announced a task force was being formed to explore bringing a full-service veterans hospital to New Hampshire. Currently, New Hampshire veterans needing hospitalization must either go to a private hospital in Concord or VA facilities in Boston or White River Junction.

He also highlighted $30 million in spending for expanded facilities, repairs to buildings damaged in a recent flood and a new center that helps veterans access Choice, which offers them federally paid medical care outside the VA.

Shulkin already has removed the hospital’s top two leaders and ordered a review and an investigation by the VA’s inspector general after the Boston Globe reported last month on a whistleblower complaint filed by physicians alleging substandard care at state’s only medical center for veterans.

They described a fly-infested operating room, surgical instruments that weren’t always sterilized and patients whose conditions were ignored or weren’t treated properly. They also accused administrators of essentially dismantling the hospital’s cardiology and surgical programs.

“What we need here is a new leadership team that will help bring this organization into the future and meet the needs of the veterans here,” Shulkin said, after touring the facility and meeting with veterans, staff and whistleblowers.

In their meeting with Shulkin, the whistleblowers described a toxic working environment with many problems tied to issues at the VA nationally. They want Shulkin to do a top-to-bottom assessment of all management at the Manchester VA and provide assurances that the hiring of a chief of staff and medical director would be transparent and include input from staff.

“These are the issues you find when you hospitals that are complex organizations,” Shulkin said. “I wasn’t surprised by any of them. What I was surprised about was why it was taking so long to resolve these and why the clinicians, the whistleblowers, weren’t being listened to.”

Shulkin said he did not find the whistleblowers “unreasonable,” adding, “They want to do better for their patients.”

The whistleblowers called the meeting with Shulkin constructive and expressed hope that reforms would be enacted. They welcomed news that the VA was replacing the director of nursing and patient services, but expressed concerns that another VA executive whom they said has stonewalled their complaints in the past was taking on an expanded role in New Hampshire.

“We gave him a series of issues that we have problems with,” Dr. Ed Kois, one of the whistleblowers said of Shulkin. “We have real problems with the bureaucracy, the redundancy and the top-heaviness of the administration.”

The state’s Democratic congressional delegation as well as Republican Gov. Chris Sununu praised Shulkin for moving quickly to confront the problems in Manchester and coming up with initiatives and funding that demonstrated he was committed to this facility. They also praised the whistleblowers for speaking out and exposing the problems that go back years.

“A special thanks to the whistleblowers who brought their concerns forward with such determination and persistence,” Sen. Maggie Hassan said. “Our veterans have fought so hard and bravely for all of us. We all enjoy the freedom of being Americans because of them. It is absolutely critical that they not only come home to a country that lives up to what they were fighting for but also takes care of them as they deserve to with the very best quality of care.”

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