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Task Force Urges N.H. Vets to Utilize White River Junction VA



Associated Press
Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Concord — A task force studying problems at New Hampshire’s only veterans hospital says the state doesn’t need a full-service facility and instead is encouraging more collaboration with the Veterans Affairs medical center in White River Junction and expanded partnerships with community hospitals.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin removed top officials from the Manchester VA medical center and appointed the task force last summer after The Boston Globereported whistleblower complaints about substandard care and treatment at the facility. That led to a renewed push by the state’s congressional delegation and others to expand the medical center into a full-service hospital, but the task force concluded that would not be the best approach.

In a draft report issued on Tuesday, the group said by the time a new inpatient hospital is built, there won’t be enough demand to sustain it, and that most veterans it heard from want to receive care close to home, regardless of who provides it.

“For all of those reasons, the Task Force finds that the best method for delivering in-patient surgical care for New Hampshire veterans is through the use of partnerships and relationships,” the group wrote.

In addition to other problems, the whistleblowers 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.

The federal agency Shulkin ordered to investigate the allegations concluded in January that Manchester officials failed to take whistleblowers seriously until they went public and waited more than seven months to initiate substantive changes.

Officials dispute that they failed to take the complaints seriously and say the medical center was well on its way to addressing those shortcomings. Alfred Montoya, who was appointed interim director in July and permanent director in February, declined to comment on the task force report on Wednesday because the final version won’t be released until April.

Members of the congressional delegation and some of the whistleblowers said they are disappointed the task force isn’t recommending a full-service hospital.

“This is a draft and I look forward to reviewing the final report and its recommendations for assisting New Hampshire veterans,” U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said. “I have pushed for a full-service hospital in New Hampshire since I first took office and I continue to believe this option should remain on the table to ensure veterans have access to the best care possible.”

Dr. Ed Kois, one of the whistleblowers, said he was not surprised at the outcome given that a VA official who initially led the task force strongly opposed a full-service hospital. But he said he appreciates the task force’s hard work and will work to implement other suggestions if they ultimately are approved, such as adding an ambulatory care center on site.

“I’m going to throw my full weight behind trying to make that work,” he said.

Andrea Amodeo-Vickery, an attorney for the whistleblowers, said the others also dispute that demand for in-patient VA services is declining. She said the No. 1 message veterans gave at numerous town hall meetings was that they want their own hospital.

“Whoever gave this information (to the task force) does not speak for the majority of veterans in New Hampshire,” she said.

The draft report also concludes that the VA should take steps to improve the facility’s culture by empowering employees, emphasizing accountability and creating a better process for reporting concerns.

Members also back the creation of an off-site “Community Care Center” in downtown Manchester for veterans struggling with mental illness, substance use disorders and homelessness. Such a center would allow veterans to access clinical services, get referrals to housing and employment programs and would serve as a hub for social and community support, the group said.