Another View -- Stewart Levenson: Nothing's changed at the Manchester VA but the rhetoricBy STEWART LEVENSON
March 15. 2018 11:13PM
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin came to the Manchester VA last summer and promised to set up a task force to study how New Hampshire veterans could be cared for in their home state.
High on the list of possibilities was that New Hampshire would get a full-service medical center. Earlier this week, the task force announced its findings that New Hampshire, the only state without a full-service medical center, would not be getting one. Citing demographics indicating that demand for a full-service medical center would be diminished before one could be built, it was decided to form partnerships with local hospitals as well as with the White River Junction VA in Vermont.
Sadly, this task force was predetermined from the start, and it is another example of our congressional delegation falling short in their duty to their constituents. Let’s look at the facts.
New Hampshire has one of the highest per capita number of veterans of any state. Because of a favorable tax climate and overall quality of life, New Hampshire is gaining veterans while other areas are experiencing a decline. This trend would not reverse in the time it would take to build a new medical center to replace the dilapidated main building in Manchester.
Many argue that veterans should be able to receive medical care wherever they want, and what we are increasingly seeing is that veterans want to go to VA medical centers. Veterans have special needs and find that many civilian hospitals lack the military cultural expertise to make them feel secure, especially in expressing themselves with regard to mental health issues such as PTSD.
As one of the physician leaders who cofounded a group of whistleblowers to root out corruption and incompetence in the Manchester VA, we took our concerns to Rep. Annie Kuster last July, seeking to cement her support building a new medical center as well as for piloting innovative care practices at the Manchester VA. We were told that California was at the head of the line for any new major building initiatives by virtue of that state having a much larger congressional delegation than New Hampshire.
While the whistleblowers were incredulous at Rep. Kuster’s statement at the time, in retrospect it now seems prophetic. Rep. Kuster has proven to have no stomach for fighting for her constituents. If the New Hampshire congressional delegation were as serious about supporting veterans as they claim, then New Hampshire’s arguments would definitely hold sway in winning the project for our state.
Our veterans are back to where they started before the whistleblowers came forward. If patients from Manchester need to be admitted to the hospital they will very likely be sent for the 90-minute ambulance ride to White River. Providing needed census by filling empty beds in Vermont has been a priority that was started under the disgraced medical center director, Danielle Ocker.
More than six months since the whistleblower exposé nothing has changed with regard to inpatient care, despite assurances from both Secretary David Shulkin and our congressional delegation. There is talk about increasing the frequency of shuttle buses between White River and Manchester. The operating rooms have yet to be reopened after the flood damage. It remains to be seen whether even the fly problem there can be solved. If not, reopening soon will at least coincide with spring. This will give a much more welcoming environment to a new hatch of flies.
In June, when the news of the shortcomings in patient care were made public and investigators descended upon Manchester, my first effort was to get in touch with Secretary Shulkin. I was told that he was in Europe attending a managed care conference. Recently the world found out he was actually attending the tennis matches at Wimbledon with his wife.
Secretary Shulkin’s ineffective leadership continues to create a distraction from the mission of providing the best possible care for our nation’s veterans. It is abundantly clear he should be removed immediately.
We all agree that New Hampshire veterans deserve better than what they were receiving last summer. As congressman, where others make empty promises, I will deliver results and fight every day for our veterans to get the care they deserve.
Dr. Stewart Levenson, R-Hopkinton, is the former chairman of the Department of Medicine at the VA Medical Center in Manchester, and a candidate in New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District.