- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in New Hampshire had a “sluggish” response to whistleblowers’ complaints of substandard care, including as many as 80 patients who developed serious spinal-cord disease from clinical neglect, a federal whistleblower agency reported Thursday.

The Office of the Special Counsel said the VA did not take “substantive” action to correct the problems for more than seven months, and acted only after the Boston Globe published articles alleging that the facility in Manchester was endangering patients.

“It is critical that whistleblowers be able to have confidence that the VA will address public health and safety issues immediately, regardless of what news coverage an issue receives,” Special Counsel Henry Kerner wrote to President Trump.

The reports detailed a fly-infested operating room, unsterilized surgical instruments and patients who weren’t treated properly.

OSC referred the allegations from four whistleblowers, all doctors, to the VA for investigation in early January 2017, but said the VA did not take any action to remove responsible management officials or initiate a comprehensive review of the facility until after the Globe’s article appeared in July.

“This sends an unacceptable message to VA whistleblowers that only the glaring spotlight of public scrutiny will move the agency to action, not disclosures made through statutorily established channels,” Kerner wrote.

The whistleblowers raised concerns of a higher rate of a serious spinal-cord condition called myelopathy among Manchester VA patients, despite a significant decline in the condition in the overall U.S. population. They alleged that substandard surgical procedures led to one patient who developed a spinal infection and possibly died from complications, and another patient who developed a spinal infection after surgery but survived.

After the Globe report, VA Secretary David Shulkin removed three top officials, orrdered an investigation and visited the medical center. He said a task force would explore ways to improve care.

One of the whistleblowers, Dr. William Kois, head of Manchester spinal-cord clinic, compiled a list of at least 80 patients over five years who suffered from serious nerve compression in the neck and weren’t getting surgery to treat it.

VA spokesman Curt Cashour said in response, “we disagree with OSC’s contention that we were slow to address these concerns.”He said as soon as Mr. Shulkin became aware of the allegations, VA took “immediate actions,” including:

— sending an investigative team to Manchester to “assess and support the facility.”— meeting with whistleblowers at the facility and “swiftly” replacing the medical center director, chief of staff and nurse executive.

Mr. Cashour said since then, the medical center has been implementing improvements, including installing a new leadership team, filling 135 staff vacancies and establishing a new office of community care.

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