CONCORD, N.H. — The Manchester VA Medical Center appointed a 12-member task force Wednesday to make recommendations on the future of New Hampshire’s only veterans hospital in the wake of whistleblower allegations of substandard treatment and conditions.
The appointments were the latest step toward reform since a Boston Globe report in July on a whistleblower complaint that described a fly-infested operating room, surgical instruments that weren’t always sterilized and patients whose conditions were ignored.
In response, Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin immediately removed three top officials and ordered an investigation. Shulkin visited the hospital in August, and said a task force would explore bringing a full-service veterans hospital to New Hampshire, teaming up with other hospitals in the state or forming a public-private partnership to improve care.
The task force named Wednesday includes one of the physicians who filed the complaint, regional VA officials, and representatives from outside groups, including the New Hampshire Hospital Association. It will be led by Dr. Michael Mayo-Smith, regional director for the New England VA system, and by David Kenney, head of the New Hampshire State Veterans Advisory Committee.
“This is a broad range of subject matter experts,” said Alfred Montoya, the hospital’s acting director.
The group’s comprehensive review will include listening sessions, focus groups and a website, said Kenney.
“We need to be as transparent in this process as possible,” he said.
The task force had its first meeting, by conference call, on Wednesday. Kenney said he is optimistic its work will lead to substantial improvements. He said he has been encouraged by some of the changes Montoya has helped implement already, particularly the creation of a new office to help veterans navigate a program that allows them to seek care outside the VA. Both he and Montoya said the most frequent complaint they had been hearing from veterans involved that program.
“It just frustrated the hell out of a lot of veterans who were trying to get appointments,” Kenney said.
Montoya said flooding that heavily damaged the hospital just days after his arrival in July has turned into an opportunity to explore ways the facility can do more to partner with community members. Physicians from the VA hospital are temporarily performing endoscopies and other same-day procedures at Catholic Medical Center while the flood damage is repaired, but that arrangement could become a permanent way of doing business, Montoya said.
“We’re now replicating that model now at Elliott Hospital and really thinking about how can we do other things outside the box,” he said. “I think the success we’ve seen with it so far, and that it’s the first of its kind in the nation, is something I’m particularly proud of.”