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VETERANS CARE Good to see progress at Manchester VA

Portsmouth Herald - 8/30/2017

Last month, the Boston Globe released an article detailing subpar conditions at the Manchester VA Medical Center. While I personally haven't had difficulty with the Manchester VAMC, I'm concerned about the lackluster treatment fellow veterans have received. Routine physicals and check-ups at Manchester VAMC are excellent quality and account for the majority of the hospital's work. But for any issues above routine doctor's appointments, when veterans need the most help, the Manchester VAMC has failed.

The article described an operating room with a history of fly infestation, supposedly sterile tools which were stained with rust or blood, and thousands of patients unable to make appointments for care they urgently need. Nearly one hundred veterans even had spinal injuries worsen as a result of poor treatment. All at a "four-star" hospital.

Despite having over 100,000 veterans, the state's only inpatient VA service center is the Manchester VAMC. It handles 30,000 to 40,000 veterans, but doesn't offer full services. This makes New Hampshire the only state which doesn't offer full services for veterans. Many patients are referred to outside service providers which causes delays in their care. Preventing veterans from quick access to quality care is inexcusable.

There were changes at the Manchester VA almost immediately following the article, but those changes should have started much earlier. It wasn't until the issues became public that anything happened. Why were changes made only after the article's release last month for issues that have been prevalent for years?

The whistleblower doctors at the Manchester VA originally tried to raise their concerns within the hospital itself, attempting to work within the administration to get better care for the veterans. However, those efforts went unaddressed. Then they contacted their federal delegates to receive help fixing the issues that plague the Manchester VA. Again nothing changed, and the veterans were left to suffer the consequences of a broken hospital system.

But when the extent of the problems at the Manchester VAMC were revealed by the press, Gov. Sununu, called Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. David Shulkin to offer his help, even though the Manchester VAMC is entirely under federal jurisdiction. Since that time, Gov. Sununu has been working with Shulkin to secure funds for the Manchester VAMC and institute staff changes.

Gov. Sununu has also recently demonstrated he is ready and willing to take action on behalf of the VA in times of crisis. When he learned a burst pipe at the VA had displaced a number of VA patients and providers, Gov. Sununu immediately issued an executive order allowing VA physicians to treat patients at other medical facilities in the state, even if those VA physicians were from out of state and did not hold a New Hampshire license. The governor learned about the problem late on a Friday, and the executive order was issued the following Monday. This is the type of bold and innovative leadership that we need.

Shulkin removed top administrators of the Manchester VAMC from their positions within hours of the article being released. Last week, he removed a third administrator and announced the Manchester VA was going to receive $30 million for repairs and renovations that will improve the services and correct some of the issues at the hospital. He also said that they are starting an investigation on how to provide New Hampshire's veterans with full services, by either upgrading the hospital or increasing access to outside service providers.

Gov. Sununu hasn't been sitting idly by with false promises. In addition to working with Shulkin for a resolution to the issues at the Manchester VAMC, the governor is looking into coordinating the state's veteran organizations so that they can provide better care for veterans. In a recent interview, Gov. Sununu said that those with the power to institute change should not just sit on the sidelines and complain, but should try to make the system better. I am happy that he has been doing just that.

It is good to see that some progress is being made to improve the care of our veterans at Manchester VAMC. It's unfortunate that the poor conditions persisted for years under previous administrations and are only changing as a result of public exposure, but at least they are improving now. Thank you to Gov. Sununu and Dr. Shulkin for taking care of those who have taken care of us.

Tim McCarthy of Salem is a Marine Corps veteran and regularly received his health care from the Manchester VA Medical Center.


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