Manchester VA interim director talks agency reforms in Rochester

  • Manchester VA interim Director Al Montoya attends a town hall meeting in Rochester on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017. Lola Duffort/ Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The interim director of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Manchester, Al Montoya, has been sporting a new accessory: a plastic button that reads “Because we’ve always done it that way!” – with a red line drawn through it.

It’s the message he attempted to drive home Wednesday night, when he spoke with about a dozen veterans that had gathered at the Frisbie Memorial Hospital in Rochester for a town hall about the VA’s ongoing reforms.

The Manchester VA has been in the spotlight for several weeks now after a Boston Globe published an expose in July detailing substandard care at the facility. Four top officials were ousted, and federal investigations are underway.

Investigators with the Office of the Medical Inspector and the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protections have recently wrapped up their preliminary information-gathering and are at work on reports, Montoya said. And their initial feedback had already been productive, he said.

“I’m an optimist, so these aren’t negative things. These are things that we can use to improve the system and make it better,” Montoya said.

Because New Hampshire lacks a full-service VA hospital, its veterans rely heavily on the federal Veterans Choice program, which pays for private care outside the VA system when veterans can’t easily access VA care. But the program has itself been beset by problems, ranging from bungled scheduling to veterans getting stuck with bills when the VA takes too long to reimburse providers.

Montoya said the Manchester VA is currently staffing up a new “office of community care” which will be solely dedicated to case management for New Hampshire veterans using the Choice program. The model has already been used in White River Junction, Vt., and Maine. The office will have about 30 employees.

The Manchester VA was also left reeling after a pipe burst just days after the Globe’s report, flooding multiple floors and causing about $8.5 million in damage.

“The impact to patient care has been tremendous,” Montoya said.

The medical center won’t be up and running until likely the end of December, but the Manchester VA is looking into partnerships with other hospitals to deliver care in the interim. It’s already established a partnership with the Catholic Medical Center in Manchester to use its space to deliver endoscopy services, Montoya said, and is in talks with other facilities.

“What’s the outlook for a (full-service) VA hospital here?” James Graham, a Vietnam War Air Force veteran, asked in the first question the audience.

It was a theme that many returned to during the wide-ranging discussion that ensued. And VA Secretary David Shulkin has announced a task force that will report back by January on the feasibility of a full-service facility in the state.

Patrick Carroll, a district director for U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter’s office, said that Shea-Porter had long sought a full-service facility in the state, and was heartened by the renewed interest and support for the idea.

“It’s very encouraging for us in the delegation to see ... and it’s very encouraging for the veterans of New Hampshire that need it,” he said.

Montoya said town halls would continue to be held on a monthly basis to update the public about changes at the VA.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)