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SPOTLIGHT UPDATE

VA secretary expands probe of embattled Manchester, N.H., hospital

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File

Whistle-blowers at the Manchester VA Medical Center (above) expressed skepticism that investigations into conditions at the hospital would be thorough.

By Globe Staff 

The top Veterans Affairs official on Tuesday expanded the agency’s investigation of the Manchester VA Medical Center, ordering the VA’s inspector general to launch its own “separate, wholly independent review” of conditions at New Hampshire’s only hospital for veterans.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs David J. Shulkin also agreed to meet the state’s congressional delegation at the hospital Aug. 4, where he will brief them on any preliminary findings of investigations that have been going on since the Globe reported earlier this month that 11 members of the medical staff have alleged there is substandard care at the hospital.

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“I’ve been clear that our review of the allegations in the article will be comprehensive, transparent and brand-new,” Shulkin said in a statement, noting that he has directed one of his undersecretaries to personally lead the review.

Shulkin has taken a series of steps since the Globe detailed the whistle-blowers’ concerns, which ranged from flies in an operating room to veterans permanently disabled due to neglect.

He removed the two top administrators and sent two teams to conduct their own investigations. Shulkin also agreed to name a panel of medical experts who will review the final reports.

But the whistle-blowers on Tuesday expressed skepticism that the various investigations would be thorough, since one of the two teams — from the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector — exonerated the hospital in an internal report in June. Despite widespread complaints from doctors, including the hospital’s chief of medicine and chief of surgery, the Office of the Medical Inspector found “no substantial or specific danger to public health.”

The whistle-blowers also said they had previously filed complaints with the VA’s inspector general that went nowhere.

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“We’ve been in contact with the inspector general’s office many times,” said Dr. Stewart Levenson, the hospital’s chief of medicine, who is leaving the post this month. “I sent a complaint to [the inspector general[ and they never even answered it. This is beginning to look like the prelude to a coverup.”

The whistle-blowers also say they want to meet with Shulkin so they can air their concerns directly.

“I’m happy that Dr. Shulkin is coming to New Hampshire,” said Andrea Amodeo-Vickery, the lawyer for the whistle-blowers. “But he has not included in his announcement that he intends to meet in person with the whistle-blowers . . . The whistle-blowers would like to speak to him, doctor to doctor, about the issues they have found at the Manchester Veterans Medical Center.”

The controversy began more than a year ago when eight doctors and three other medical staff members reported problems to a federal whistle-blower agency, the Office of Special Counsel.

The independent agency zeroed in on three allegations: that there were flies in an operating room, that a doctor cut and pasted patient medical records without updating patients’ conditions, and that scores of Manchester patients were suffering from debilitating spinal problems that might have been prevented.

Earlier this year, the Office of Special Counsel found a “substantial likelihood” the allegations were true and ordered the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector to launch an investigation, which began in January.

The Office of the Medical Inspector investigators, in their June report, did find that Manchester staff had made mistakes in patient care, but did not find that patients were harmed as a result.

Shulkin agreed to meet with the New Hampshire elected officials after Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan as well as US Representatives Carol Shea-Porter and Ann Kuster wrote to him July 21, asking him to accompany them on a site visit “as soon as possible to examine these issues.”

They also sent 11 questions and asked for prompt responses “given the seriousness of these allegations.”

They also asked what Shulkin was doing to “ensure the quality and continuity of care” for Manchester patients while the investigations are ongoing. And they asked for progress reports every two weeks.

In a written statement, Manchester VA spokeswoman Kristin Pressly said, “We fully support those actions [by Shulkin] and will work to facilitate and expedite them.”


Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.