Task force: Full-service veterans hospital not necessary in N.H.

  • Tony Woody, 60, of Exeter holds up a packet of documents he says proves of the poor care he has received while speaking to Manchester VA Medical Center acting director Al Montoya during a town hall listening session at Manchester Community College in Manchester on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor file

  • 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.

Associated Press
Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A task force studying problems at New Hampshire’s only veterans hospital said the state doesn’t need a full-service facility and instead encouraged more collaboration with the Veterans Affairs medical center in Vermont and expanded partnerships with community hospitals.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin removed top officials from the Manchester VA medical center and appointed the task force last summer after the Boston Globe reported whistleblower complaints about substandard care and treatment at the facility. The controversy led to a renewed push by the state’s congressional delegation and others to expand the medical center into a full-service hospital. But the task force concluded that would not be the best approach.

In a draft report issued Tuesday, the group says that by the time a new inpatient hospital is built, there won’t be enough demand to sustain it, and that most veterans it heard from want to receive care close to home, regardless of who provides it.

“For all of those reasons, the Task Force finds that the best method for delivering in-patient surgical care for New Hampshire veterans is through the use of partnerships and relationships,” the group wrote.

In addition to other problems, the whistleblowers described a fly-infested operating room, surgical instruments that weren’t always sterilized and patients whose conditions were ignored or weren’t treated properly. They also accused administrators of essentially dismantling the hospital’s cardiology and surgical programs.

The federal agency Shulkin ordered to investigate the allegations concluded in January that Manchester officials failed to take whistleblowers seriously until they went public and more than seven months passed before substantive changes were initiated.

Officials disputed that they failed to take the complaints seriously and said the medical center was well on its way to addressing those shortcomings. Alfred Montoya, who was appointed interim director in July and permanent director in February, declined to comment on the task force report Wednesday because the final version won’t be released until April.

Members of the congressional delegation and some of the whistleblowers said they are disappointed the task force isn’t recommending a full-service hospital.

“This is a draft and I look forward to reviewing the final report and its recommendations for assisting New Hampshire veterans,” U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, said in a statement. “I have pushed for a full-service hospital in New Hampshire since I first took office and I continue to believe this option should remain on the table to ensure veterans have access to the best care possible.”

Dr. Ed Kois, one of the whistleblowers, said he was not surprised at the outcome given that a VA official who initially led the task force strongly opposed a full-service hospital. But he said he appreciates the task force’s hard work and will work to implement other suggestions if they ultimately are approved, such as adding an ambulatory care center on site.

“I’m going to throw my full weight behind trying to make that work,” he said.

Andrea Amodeo-Vickery, an attorney for the whistleblowers, said that others also dispute that demand for in-patient VA services is declining. She said the No. 1 message veterans gave at numerous town hall meetings was that they want their own hospital.

“Whoever gave this information (to the task force) does not speak for the majority of veterans in New Hampshire,” she said.

The draft report also concludes that the VA should take steps to improve the facility’s culture by empowering employees, emphasizing accountability and creating a better process for reporting concerns.

Members also back the creation of an off-site “Community Care Center” in downtown Manchester for veterans struggling with mental illness, substance use disorders and homelessness. Such a center would allow veterans to access clinical services, get referrals to housing and employment programs, and use it as a hub for social and community support, the group said.