Veterans Affairs Secretary David J. Shulkin has removed two top officials at the Manchester VA Medical Center after a report that said care was getting worse and worse with one VA doctor claiming that many of his patients have received substandard care, leaving many of them disabled.
Shulkin’s action came within hours after The Boston Globe published a “Spotlight Team report” detailing what several doctors and other medical staffers allege is dangerously substandard care given at the facility, which was considered to be a 4-star hospital.
The hospital’s chief of medicine, Dr. Stewart Levenson, said he had “never seen a hospital run this poorly.”
The staffers, who reported the Manchester hospital to a federal whistle-blower agency, described an operating room infested with flies, veterans with crippling spinal damage that might have been prevented, and surgical instruments that are obsolete and sometimes unsterile.
“These are serious allegations and we want our veterans and our staff to have confidence in the care we’re providing,” said Shulkin in a written statement. “I have been clear about the importance of transparency, accountability, and rapidly fixing any and all problems brought to our attention, and we will do so immediately with these allegations.”
Shulkin removed the hospital director, Danielle Ocker, and replaced her with Alfred Montoya, the current director at the White River Junction VA in Vermont. He also removed chief of staff James Schlosser, saying he would name Schlosser’s replacement soon.
Ocker and Schlosser have been removed pending the outcome of the review. They remain VA employees and will be assigned other duties, according to a VA spokesman.
The Globe reported that 11 physicians and medical employees at the Manchester VA — including the hospital’s retiring chief of medicine, former chief of surgery, and former chief of radiology — had contacted a federal whistle-blower agency and the Globe to say the facility is endangering patients.
Within The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team report are details of the problems encountered at the Manchester VA hospital that led to the firings.
One operating room has been abandoned since last October because exterminators couldn’t get rid of the flies. Doctors had to cancel surgeries in another operating room last month after they discovered what appeared to be rust or blood on two sets of surgical instruments that were supposedly sterile.
Thousands of patients, including some with life-threatening conditions, struggle to get any care at all because the program for setting up appointments with outside specialists has broken down. One man still hadn’t gotten an appointment to see an oncologist this spring, more than four weeks after a diagnosis of lung cancer, according to a hospital document obtained by the Globe.
And when patients from the Manchester Veterans Affairs Medical Center are referred to outside specialists, those physicians are sometimes dismayed by their condition and medical history. A Boston neurosurgeon lamented that several Manchester patients sent to him had suffered needless spinal damage, including paralysis, because the hospital had not provided proper care for a treatable spine condition called cervical myelopathy.
“Only in 3rd World countries is it common to see patients end up as disabled from myelopathy as the ones who have been showing up after referral from you,” wrote Dr. Chima Ohaegbulam , of New England Baptist Hospital, to a doctor at the Manchester VA in 2014.
Ratings can deceive. Inside the unassuming red-brick walls of the Manchester medical center is ground zero for an extraordinary rebellion led by doctors who say they have almost no say in how the hospital is run, lack tools to do their jobs, and witness chronic shortcomings in patient care. They say the four top administrators, only one of them a doctor, seem more concerned with performance ratings than in properly treating the roughly 25,000 veterans who go to Manchester for outpatient care and day surgery each year.
So far, 11 physicians and medical employees — including the hospital’s retiring chief of medicine, former chief of surgery, and former chief of radiology — have contacted a federal whistle-blower agency and the Globe Spotlight Team to say the Manchester VA is endangering patients. The US Office of the Special Counsel, the whistle-blower agency, has already found a “substantial likelihood” of legal violations, gross mismanagement, abuse of authority, and a danger to public health, according to a January letter to one of the doctors who alleged wrongdoing.
“I have never seen a hospital run this poorly — every day it gets worse and worse,” said Dr. Stewart Levenson, chief of medicine, an 18-year veteran of the hospital who is among the whistle-blowers. “I never thought I would be exposing the system like this. But I went through the system and got nowhere.”
These firings are the latest initiated by President Trump and VA Secretary David Shulkin, who have begun dealing with bad conduct at the Veterans Administration (VA) where hundreds of employees have been fired, suspended or demoted since the beginning of this year.
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