- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 26, 2017

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) - The nation’s top Veterans Affairs official plans to meet next week with doctors who have alleged substandard care at the Manchester VA Medical Center.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin recently removed the hospital’s top two leaders and ordered a review by the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector after the Boston Globe reported on a whistleblower complaint filed by physicians. He also has ordered the VA’s inspector general to launch its own investigation and plans to meet with the state’s congressional delegation at the hospital on Aug. 4.

“VA investigators have been looking into the allegations in detail since early last week, and we are close to announcing a third-party panel of medical experts who will review their final report,” Shulkin said Tuesday.

A spokesman for Shulkin said Wednesday the secretary also plans to meet with the 11 staffers who described a fly-infested operating room, surgical instruments that weren’t always sterilized and patients whose conditions were ignored or weren’t treated properly.

“Dr. Shulkin is glad to meet with the whistleblowers and looks forward to hearing their views,” Curt Cashour said.

Dr. Ed Kois said he is looking forward to the meeting.

“I think this will be a historic first step for a VA chief to reach out to the whistleblowers and hopefully will be the start of dialogue not only toward solving issues at the Manchester VA but addressing the larger issue of VA reform nationally,” he said.

He and several of the other doctors, however, said they have little confidence that the inspector general’s investigation will be a “separate, wholly independent review” as Shulkin put it. They want a third-party investigation from the start, not just an outside panel to review the VA’s conclusions.

“I had sent a request for an investigation to the (inspector general) back in April, and they didn’t even respond to my allegations at that time, so we have no faith in this,” said Dr. Stewart Levenson, the hospital’s chief of medicine.

“They’re investigating themselves, and getting the final report rubber stamped by an independent panel who may be well-meaning but will not have enough information to form a real, valuable opinion,” Kois said.

Acting VA Undersecretary of Health Dr. Poonam Alaigh visited the hospital Tuesday and held two listening sessions with staff.

“People were angry. People got up to talk about more problems coming to light, and we seem to have gotten canned answers,” said Levenson, who expected more of the same at a town hall meeting officials were hosting for veterans Wednesday night.

“I think it’s not only a PR event, it’s a way of removing some attention from what we’re doing,” he said.

In interviews with the Globe, former hospital Director Danielle Ocker and former Chief of Staff James Schlosser acknowledged significant cuts in services but said the hospital was addressing the shortcomings, and patient safety hadn’t been compromised. The whistleblowers accuse administrators of essentially dismantling the hospital’s cardiology and surgical programs.

“Manchester’s broken, it’s as simple as that,” Dr. Ed Chibaro said.

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