Shaheen: VA secretary was told months ago about Manchester facility

Monitor staff
Published: 7/19/2017 11:44:59 AM

Just days after he placed leaders at the Manchester Veterans Affairs Medical Center on leave, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin is under fire for saying he hadn’t known about complaints of substandard care at the facility.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen sent a letter to then-Manchester VA leader Danielle Ocker in September 2016 – to which Shulkin was copied – regarding “significant concerns with the quality of care provided at the hospital.”

Allegations of woefully inadequate care became public over the weekend when the Boston Globe wrote about a group of whistleblower doctors. The group alleges that the center endangered the health of spinal cord injury patients, delayed installing important medical equipment and failed to meet sanitation and sterilization standards. Within hours, Shulkin removed Ocker, the center’s director, and James Schlosser, its chief of staff.

“While these issues are new to me, I am truly disappointed that local management kept these issues from us,” Shulkin wrote in an email to top New Hampshire politicians soon after the report.

Second Congressional District Rep. Annie Kuster and Shaheen, both Democrats, met with the group of whistleblowers several times last year to hear their concerns. Kuster and Shaheen both said they contacted the VA’s inspector general, and Shaheen also wrote to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

“I was encouraged that, following my letter, the Office of Special Counsel followed up on these claims, reached a preliminary assessment, and helped spur an investigation by the VA. It is disappointing that my letter to the Manchester VA, in which Secretary Shulkin was copied, was not met with the same urgency,” Shaheen said in a statement.

Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, also criticized Shulkin’s comments.

“Based on what has been reported, it appears that the VA’s initial statement on Sunday was not entirely accurate,” Hassan spokeswoman Ricki Eshman said in a statement. “Senator Hassan will continue pushing the VA for a full and complete accounting of these deeply troubling reports of outrageous practices and administrative indifference.”

A spokesperson for Shulkin said Shaheen’s letter provided little to go on.

“Senator Shaheen’s letter contained no details of the allegations, but led to an investigation by VA’s Office of Medical Inspector that found no evidence to substantiate them,” Curt Cashour, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said in a statement.

“After learning those details from the Boston Globe report on Sunday, Secretary Shulkin sent teams to Manchester led by two senior Veterans Health Administration leaders and the head of VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection to conduct a new, top-to-bottom review of each of the allegations,” he added.

Meanwhile, Kuster, the ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, has asked the panel to hold a field hearing in New Hampshire on the allegations of substandard care.

“Congresswoman Kuster believes we need a thorough and comprehensive understanding of what exactly happened at the Manchester VAMC and the actions taken by VA leadership to address the complaints,” Nick Brown, a Kuster spokesman, said in a statement.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.)

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