By Jonathan Kaupanger
So many flies in an operating room it had to be closed down, rust or possibly blood on supposedly sterile surgical instruments even paralysis resulting from an easily treatable spine condition. As one doctor put it, “I see such patients on visits to Nigeria, and only see them in Boston when they show up from the VA!” The problem is this medical center is in Manchester, New Hampshire, and not Abuja, Nigeria.
“These are serious allegations and we want our veterans and our staff to have confidence in the care we’re providing,” said VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin. “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.”
Sec. Shulkin was true to his word. Early Sunday morning, a detailed and scathing report on the VA’s Manchester Medical Center was posted online. Within a few hours, the medical center director and chief-of-staff had been removed. By Monday, VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector and newly created Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection started a top to bottom review of the medical center.
Eleven whistleblowers from the Manchester VA Medical Center, including the retiring chief of medicine, former chiefs of surgery and radiology, started sounding alarms last year. The US Office of the Special Counsel has already found a substantial likelihood of abuse of authority, legal violations, gross mismanagement and a danger to public health.
One of the whistleblowers, the head of the spinal cord clinic at the Manchester medical center had a list of about 80 patients who suffered from crippling nerve compressions in the neck and were using canes, wheelchairs, and walkers instead of receiving surgery. He said that the condition was easy to treat with surgery if diagnosed before it progressed too far.
Manchester’s VA is not a full-service hospital. They contract with Concord Hospital for specific surgeries and inpatient care. According to the medical center’s website, they planned to refer 35% – 70% of veterans to community care. Only the system for scheduling appointments with outside specialists is broken. One patient, diagnosed with lung cancer this spring still hadn’t received an appointment with an oncologist.
This is not the first time the Manchester Medical Center has run into trouble. In 2015 a veteran was awarded $21 million because the facility failed to diagnose and treat his stroke. The following year government investigators found that Manchester had been downplaying patient wait times. According to a VA Spokesman, pending the outcome of the review, the former director and chief of staff remain VA employees but have been assigned other duties for now.
The VA’s spokesman also pointed out several recent actions taken by Secretary Shulkin to improve the agency’s accountability and transparency.
“The new Accountability and Whistleblower Protection law is an important step forward for our modernization. It also allows us to hold ourselves accountable for the work we do for our veterans,” the VA wrote in a statement to CBS Radio’s ConnectingVets.
In May Shulkin established the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection to help protect employees who expose problems and to assist in using all available authorities to discipline or terminate any VA manager or employee who has violated the public’s trust and failed to carry out their duties. Earlier this month, VA started publishing its adverse actions report, the first US Agency to do so, online and can be found here.