Manchester VA hospital puts its best foot forward

  • American Legion assistant service officer Michael Hartt toured the open house at the Veteran’s Medical Center in Manchester on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • John Spiller of Manchester said the two and half years he spent in the VA’s nutrition program after he was diagnosed with type-2 diabetes helped him lose around 150 pounds and get his life back on track. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • VA Medical Center Director Alfred Montoya Jr. talks about all the improvements at the Manchester facility on Wednesday, November 1, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Wednesday, November 01, 2017

John Spiller has nothing but good things to say about the state’s only medical center for veterans.

Spiller said he struggled with his weight for a long time before he enrolled in the nutrition program at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Manchester. Two and half years ago, he weighed close to 400 pounds.

Now, Spiller says, he weighs about 250 pounds – and he’s still losing weight.

“The VA has been very good to me,” Spiller said, holding up a pair of his old denim shorts – now about twice his current size.

Spiller, of Manchester, was one ambassador for the facility in an open-house assembly of around 20 VA-affiliated groups and programs held in the hospital’s solarium on Wednesday afternoon.

Program representatives put up tables about resources such as palliative care, pharmacy and mental health services, where veterans could walk around, talk to professionals and pick up pamphlets.

Medical Center Director Alfred Montoya Jr. said he hoped it would be a chance for the hospital to meet prospective clients.

“It gives us an opportunity to reach out to our veterans and say, ‘If you’ve never signed up for VA services and you’re eligible, please come in,’ ” he said.

The event was in stark contrast to images of fly-infested operating rooms, unsterile surgical utensils and neglected patients that have dogged the hospital since July when whistleblower complaints were published by the media.

The group of doctors revealed years of mismanagement, and what they said was substandard care, that left some veterans with irreversible medical conditions that could have been treated and prevented.

Just days after the allegations surfaced, a pipe burst in the medical center, flooding the aging facility’s fourth floor surgical wing. Patients requiring surgery still have had to go to the neighboring Catholic Medical Center.

Top VA officials appointed a task force to make recommendations for the future of the facility, which is New Hampshire’s only veteran hospital.

Montoya, one replacement for two top officials in Manchester, had previously worked as director at the White River Junction VA in Vermont. He said he has been attending listening sessions and town halls, and is working closely with the task force.

Montoya said it’s important to remember that the problems that occurred in Manchester didn’t come on suddenly. They won’t go away suddenly, either.

“This isn’t something where someone just turned on a light switch and said, “Surprise! There are issues in Manchester,” he said. “Similarly, to get us going in a different direction, it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. It’s going to take time.”

Montoya said one of his first steps as director was to increase the hospital’s office of community care staff from 10 to 34 people. The office of community care processes consults from veterans who seek to utilize hospital services.

In July, the hospital had 3,200 pending consults. Montoya said they are now aiming to respond to consults within three business days.

“We are really trying to point the organization in the right direction,” Montoya said. “The feedback I’m getting from our veterans is that we’re making improvements, but there’s still room to grow.”

Montoya said a positive outcome of the changes to the hospital were that they motivated employees to be more innovative with service offerings.

Dietitian Kathy Martin, who worked with Spiller, said the hospital is starting a program where veterans can come to the nutrition clinic for one-on-one counseling without a consult from their doctor.

“That way, people who need it don’t have to wait – they can come here right away,” she said.

Michael Hartt of the New Hampshire Veteran’s Service Office said open houses are a great way to spread information to service members about their benefits.

“It’s nice to have events like this so that veterans can come down, they can take a look at what’s on the tables and they can ask questions about what is available,” he said. “Many veterans aren’t aware of all the benefits they have.”

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, lwilling ham@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)