Acting veterans secretary tours recovering Manchester clinic
By HOLLY RAMER
Jun. 05, 2018
MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — The new acting secretary of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday that New Hampshire's only veterans hospital has been rebuilt "both physically and emotionally" since whistleblowers went public with allegations of substandard conditions and care.
Peter O'Rourke was named acting secretary last week while President Donald Trump's nominee, Robert Wilkie, awaits confirmation as permanent secretary. On Tuesday, he toured the VA medical center in Manchester, where a burst pipe last July caused severe flooding. It came just days after The Boston Globe published whistleblower complaints about a fly-infested operating room, surgical instruments that weren't always sterilized and patients whose conditions were ignored or weren't treated properly. The complaints also accused administrators of essentially dismantling the hospital's cardiology and surgical programs.
O'Rourke served as head of the VA's accountability and whistleblower protection office at the time, and said that much has improved since then.
"Having had the benefit of being here both at the beginning of the crisis and at the end, it's been wonderful to see the changes this team has made," he said. "They've rebuilt this place both physically and emotionally, and it's been great to see what's transpired over the last 10 months."
In response to the allegations, the VA removed top officials, ordered an investigation and appointed a task force to recommend changes. The investigative agency concluded in January that Manchester officials failed to take whistleblowers seriously until they went public, and waited more than seven months to initiative substantive changes. The task force concluded the state doesn't need a full-service facility and instead is encouraging more collaboration with the Veterans Affairs medical center in Vermont and expanded partnerships with community hospitals.
Officials dispute that they failed to take the complaints seriously and say the medical center was well on its way to addressing shortcomings. Alfred Montoya, who was appointed interim director in July and permanent director in February, said problems at the center didn't arise overnight, and it will take time to fix them.
"We really have been focused on not just rebuilding the culture and the experience for our veterans, but focusing on getting back to the basics, making sure we're hiring enough providers to take care of our veterans. In the Granite State, we take care of 26,000 veterans here, so we want to make sure that we can provide care to them in a fast, efficient manner and that we're also taking care of our staff to get that done."
O'Rourke said the VA will announce its plans for further changes in the next few weeks, but one advocate said he wants to know more before then about what's on the table.
"I think it's improper the veterans of New Hampshire don't even know what's being proposed to take care of them," he said.
Dr. Ed Kois, one of the whistleblowers, said while some problems remain in the area of surgery and elsewhere, the overall "attitude" has changed at the hospital.
"It's much more user friendly, it's much more worker friendly," he said. "We still have issues we need to work on ... and there's some pockets still haven't risen with the tide but they've been really supportive of me."