White River Junction VA Chief Assumes Leadership of N.H. Facility

  • Al Montoya

  • Danielle Ocker

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 18, 2017

White River Junction — The director of the White River Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center has been asked to oversee the VA Medical Center in Manchester following whistleblower complaints about patient care and sanitation at the only New Hampshire-based VA hospital.

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin on Sunday asked Alfred Montoya Jr., who has been the permanent director in White River Junction for little more than a year, to take the helm of the Manchester VA center as acting director several hours after publication of a Boston Sunday Globe Spotlight team story raising questions about the Manchester facility.

Montoya replaced Danielle Ocker, the Manchester director and a former top official in White River Junction. Ocker’s chief of staff, James Schlosser, also was asked to step aside, and Shulkin ordered a “top-to-bottom” review of the Manchester VA that began on Monday, according to a VA news release issued on Sunday afternoon.

“These are serious allegations, and we want our veterans and our staff to have confidence in the care we’re providing,” Shulkin said in the release. “I have been clear about the importance of transparency, accountability and rapidly fixing any and all problems brought to our attention, and we will do so immediately with these allegations.”

The Manchester VA Medical Center does not offer inpatient care, but provides walk-in urgent care for non-emergencies, primary care, ambulatory surgery, specialty clinics, mental health, home-based primary care and long-term care. In addition to its primary facility, it offers services in four community-based outpatient clinics in: Conway, N.H.; Portsmouth, N.H.; Somersworth, N.H., and Tilton, N.H.

The complaints outlined in the Globe story include an operating room that had to be closed due to a fly infestation, the discovery of rust or blood on supposedly sterile operating instruments, patients having difficulty scheduling appointments with specialists and concerns of some outside physicians about the quality of care veterans receive in Manchester, particularly relating to spinal conditions and pain management.

Ocker, who has had a home in Hartland, worked at the White River Junction VA — which serves veterans in Vermont and the four contiguous counties of New Hampshire — most recently in the role of associate director. In that role, she led statewide and medical center emergency response efforts and was responsible for the facility’s infrastructure, according to a news release at the time of her 2015 hiring in Manchester.

Ocker began her career at the White River Junction medical center as a student nurse in 1985, according to the 2015 release. She earned her associate degree in nursing from New Hampshire Technical College in 1986, and then earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master of business administration from the University of Phoenix.

Jim Blue, a regional VA spokesman, said Monday there were no concerns about Ocker’s performance when she was in White River Junction.

“Ms. Ocker was a strong associate director at the White River Junction VA Medical Center and held a multitude of acting director and senior leadership roles,” he said via email.

Montoya, a U.S. Air Force veteran and former assistant director of a VA medical center in Connecticut, reported to his new job on Monday, said White River Junction VA spokesperson Katherine Tang.

In recent months, Montoya led a team at the White River Junction VA, which has successfully reduced the length of stay in the hospital’s medical and surgical beds from about six days in January to four in June. This was an area of deficiency outlined in a report released by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General earlier in June based on a site inspection conducted last December.

The White River Junction VA’s Assistant Director Matthew Mulcahy, a U.S. Navy veteran who previously served as the chief of facilities management service for the White River Junction medical center, is now acting as its director, Tang said.

Neither Montoya nor Mulcahy was available for comment on Monday, Tang said. Ocker could not be reached for comment.

A replacement for Schlosser, Manchester’s chief of staff, has not yet been named, according to Sunday’s release.

Tang said Montoya and Mulcahy will remain in their acting positions while the Veterans Health Administration Office of the Medical Inspector and the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection conduct their review in Manchester.

Tang said she did not know how long the review will take.

In the meantime, she said veterans need not worry about the care they will receive in White River Junction.

“I can assure everyone that our veterans here at White River Junction will be taken care of,” she said. “Veterans are (our) number one priority.”

That message was reinforced Monday by Blue, the regional VA spokesman.

“The White River Junction VA Medical Center takes seriously its obligation to provide the highest quality care and services to America’s veterans. Director Alfred Montoya has a strong leadership team and succession plan in place, and during Montoya’s service in Manchester, veterans who depend on the White River Junction VAMC can be assured of seamless service under the leadership of acting director Matthew Mulcahy,” Blue said via email.

Blue said the acting associate director in White River Junction will be Dr. Paul Zimmerman.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle reacted to the allegations included in the Globe story.

“The reports concerning the Manchester VA Medical Center are simply unacceptable,” U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H. said in a news release on Sunday. “Our veterans deserve much better. I was deeply concerned when I met last year with the group of VA doctors.”

Kuster, who serves on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said she brought the doctors’ concerns to the Office of the Inspector General.

“I appreciate the seriousness with which Secretary Shulkin is taking this matter, and I will continue to monitor the investigation closely and provide assistance through the House VA Committee,” she said.

In a letter to the state’s Congressional delegation on Monday, Republican Governor Chris Sununu expressed his support for Shulkin’s actions in light of the Globe story.

“I was encouraged by his willingness to address these troublesome allegations quickly, without hesitation, and with an insistence on transparency,” Sununu wrote. “Secretary Shulkin knows that immediate action can help restore confidence in the system. We will stop at nothing short of delivering the best care for our veterans.”

Valley News Staff Writer Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.