- Associated Press - Sunday, September 24, 2017

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - When U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan read the recent announcement of a task force to improve veterans’ health care in New Hampshire, one line stood out: “The task force will develop a future vision of what VA must do to best meet the needs of New Hampshire’s Veterans.”

Hassan, a Democrat, contrasts that sentence with the words of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, who in August said that the Manchester VA Medical Center “is not a full-service organization, and that is what New Hampshire needs,” and that the task force would develop a plan to provide “full services.”

“In what we’ve seen since Secretary Shulkin’s visit, the VA is already seeming to move away from the strong ‘full-services’ language that Secretary Shulkin used,” Hassan said at a House subcommittee hearing last week.

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Though it doesn’t have any active-duty military bases, New Hampshire has the fifth-highest ratio of veterans in the country, with 115,000 people who make up nearly 11 percent of the population. It is one of a few states without a full-service VA hospital, however.

The Manchester center, previously a 28-bed full-service hospital, currently provides urgent care, primary care, ambulatory surgery, mental health treatment and other services, but it contracts with Concord Hospital and others for more elaborate surgery and inpatient care. It was downsized in 2000, leaving many veterans to travel to Boston or White River Junction, Vermont, for treatment.

The task force is among steps taken by the VA since a Boston Globe report in July highlighted allegations of substandard conditions and treatment at New Hampshire’s only veterans hospital. The report detailed complaints from whistleblowers who described a fly-infested operating room, surgical instruments that weren’t always sterilized and patients whose conditions were ignored. Shulkin immediately removed three top officials and ordered an investigation.

Though the whistleblowers weren’t initially focused on a full-service hospital, the fallout has prompted the state’s congressional delegation to renew their efforts to secure one. U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, both Democrats, echoed Hassan at the hearing. Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter was a sponsor of one of numerous unsuccessful bills seeking to restore the hospital’s full-service designation over the years.

Dr. Michael Mayo-Smith, the regional VA director for New England and leader of the task force, told the delegation that while all options will be on the table, the goal “is to bring back a set of recommendations that would allow veterans to receive here within the state a full set of services.”

Hassan said she remains concerned about follow-through.

“I will be paying close attention to the work of this task force to make sure it’s not just another idea that doesn’t go anywhere,” she said.

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