Controversial co-chairman ousted from VA task force

  • The Manchester Veterans Affairs Medical Center is seen July 17, 2017, the same day a group of veterans met with the hospital's new leader, Alfred Montoya, who is currently director of the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt. Director Danielle Ocker and Chief of Staff James Schlosser were removed from their positions following a report in the Boston Globe that alleged the hospital was endangering patients. NICK REID

  • Dr. Stewart Levenson speaks to the group of veterans and guests at Manchester’s Sweeney Post 2 on Monday July 31, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A top official on a key Veterans Affairs task force was removed from his position Tuesday, after mounting complaints alleging a history of negligent oversight of the VA facility in Manchester.

Michael Mayo-Smith, network director of the New England VA system, was removed as co-chairman of the VA New Hampshire Vision 2025 Task Force and is no longer a sitting member, a Veterans Affairs spokesman said Tuesday.

Mayo-Smith was dismissed by the Executive in Charge of the Veterans Health Administration, Dr. Carolyn Clancy, in a decision made Tuesday, the spokesman, Curt Cashour, said.

Mayo-Smith’s place at the head of a body charged with improving New Hampshire’s VA system after blistering scandals was long criticized by whistleblowers and veterans advocates, who said his leadership position would create a conflict of interest.

In a statement, Clancy made reference to those concerns.

“Dr. Mayo-Smith served the panel well in its initial formation, but as the regional VA medical director, it’s important to have the panel remain independent of his views as it makes recommendations to the Veterans Health Administration on the future of VA health care in New Hampshire,” Clancy said.

Replacing Mayo-Smith as co-chair is Dr. Jennifer Lee, the present Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Policy and Services at the VA, according to Cashour. David Kenney, chairman of the New Hampshire State Veterans Advisory Committee, will remain a co-chair, Cashour said.

Mayo-Smith could not be reached for comment. The VA declined to immediately make Lee available for interview.

The shake-up came after weeks of opposition to Mayo-Smith’s role, and months after an explosive Boston Globe investigation revealed deep-seated problems with the management and operation of Manchester’s VA center.

Among the issues alleged by a group of 11 medical staff at the hospital were unsanitary conditions of surgical instruments, long wait times for treatment and fly-infested operating rooms – facilitated by poor leadership.

Hospital Director Danielle Ocker and Chief of Staff James Schlosser were both removed in the days following the report, but Mayo-Smith remained a target of scorn among veterans advocates.

In an interview Tuesday, Stewart Levenson, the former medical director of the Manchester center and a whistleblower for the Globe story, said Mayo-Smith had failed to act on concerns raised for years before the Globe story was published.

Some complaints were made over emails to Mayo-Smith; others were passed on through Levenson’s direct supervisor, he said. Levenson also raised the issues in person during informal meetings, he added.

When Mayo-Smith was announced as the co-chair of the task force, Levenson and other whistleblowers quickly voiced opposition.

Shulkin initially stood by the choice, with Cashour telling the Union Leader in August that the VA head had “full confidence” in Mayo-Smith’s position as head of the task force.

But the criticism continued to grow, coming to a head at a Sept. 17 field hearing attended by Rep. Annie Kuster and Sen. Maggie Hassan, both Democrats. Many of the speakers called for Mayo-Smith’s ouster, arguing that they wouldn’t be able to trust any findings from a task force with him at the helm.

As frustrations mounted, members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation also added pressure.

A week after the September field hearing, Kuster called Shulkin and raised her own concern with Mayo-Smith’s role, according to Nick Brown, a spokesman. Kuster suggested Lee as a potential replacement, Brown said.

Sen. Maggie Hassan also spoke with Shulkin directly in recent weeks, pressing him for “a change in leadership,” according to a Hassan spokesperson. The senator’s office has received calls from veterans representatives asking for Mayo-Smith’s removal, the spokesperson added.

Speaking Tuesday, Levenson praised the move as a step in the right direction for the task force.

“When I met with Dr. Shulkin months ago, I pointed out that these lapses in care quality were planted firmly at the feet of Dr. Mayo-Smith,” he said. “Hopefully this is taken to heart now.”

And Levenson, a Republican candidate for N.H.’s 2nd Congressional District – a seat currently held by Kuster – went further, calling for Mayo-Smith’s firing from his present post.

“Hopefully (this move) is a prelude to him being held accountable for his poor leadership at the helm of the New England network,” he said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at