Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center Interim Director Dave Whitmer asked veterans and staff members at a town hall meeting Tuesday to put the past behind them and move forward.
He also asked them for input about what needs to change.
“I can’t do this job without hearing the voice of the veteran,” he said.
And hear them he did. There were some tough questions asked by veterans at the meeting, which drew a standing-room only crowd of about 100 people.
Veterans expressed distrust of the regional network and of the Veterans Affairs Central Office in Washington, D.C., and they asked how much autonomy Whitmer would have to make needed changes. They asked when they would be able to see the full report of the Office of the Medical Inspector, which investigated whistle-blower retaliation allegations and medical-care issues this winter. And they asked if employees who had been retaliated against would be re-hired.
One veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder said the doctors and nurses needed to be taught how to have good bedside manners, while another said almost everybody she’d met at the VA treated her well.
Whitmer said he’s been given the authority to make the changes that need to be made over the remaining 11 months he plans to be here. He said he feels fully supported by the regional network in that mission.
But he said he can’t fix what’s happened in the past, and he doesn’t intend to re-hire employees who lost their jobs due to retaliation from managers.
He said he would make the full investigative report available as soon as he received the final report, and been given approval by the VA Central Office to make it public.
Michael Murphy, director of the VA Northwest Health Network, also known as VISN-20, spoke briefly in response to questions about why the network hadn’t acted to protect whistle-blowers from being retaliated against by managers. Murphy asserted that no such problems had been brought to his attention.
Some in the audience expressed disbelief.
Veterans Service Officer Frank Blair suggested the reports had been “filed in the trash can” and Murphy should look there. A woman asked for, and received, Murphy’s email address. Since he said he’d gotten no complaints, she said, she thought she should have it.
Murphy said he “brought Dave in to do sort of a complete reset here at the Roseburg VA, and we’re going to do our best to just move forward at this point. What’s in the past is in the past, and we can’t go back and do anything to change it now. It is what it is.”
One woman asked how they could do that.
“With all due respect, how can you possibly learn if you don’t pay attention to what happened in the past, so you know what went wrong and you can fix it in the future,” she said.
Whitmer said he recognized “there has been pain caused in the past,” but he gave an impassioned plea to the veterans and staff members to let the past go.
He said he spent time studying what had happened in the past here, so he could ensure the things that went wrong weren’t repeated.
“But at the end of the day, I have to let that go. I’m asking you as well to let that go, so we can move forward together and really create the kind of health care system that we need to in the future,” he said.
Whitmer said there are people on Capitol Hill who would be happy to eliminate a small, rural facility like the Roseburg VA and write the veterans vouchers for care in the community instead.
“I think all of us in this room know better, that you’ve earned much better health care than just getting a voucher in the mail from the government, and having you navigate that health care on your own,” he said.
He said he traveled 3,000 miles from Florida, where he is the chief operating officer for the VA’s Sunshine Health Network, to Roseburg because he believes in this system of health care, and he wants to make the kinds of changes it needs to move forward.
“But I can’t do that with an anchor dragged on me about things from the past that I can’t fix, that I wasn’t here when it happened. And so I’ll listen, and I’ll learn, and I will not have those mistakes happen again, certainly while I’m here, but I can’t have that drag me down going forward,” he said, to applause from the crowd.
Whitmer said there will be changes to the way health care is delivered, but those changes will be made with the input of veterans.
“I did not bring a suitcase full of answers from Tampa on how this health care system can run, but what I did bring is a skill-set to bring parties together, to have data that will help drive our decisions, to have input from our stakeholders, from the veterans, from their families from our employees, so we can make decisions,” he said.
At the end of the day, he said, he came here to make decisions about the long-term health of the Roseburg VA, and those decisions will be “flawlessly executed.”
Many veterans said after the meeting they felt generally positive about Whitmer’s presentation. Whitmer said after the meeting he thought it went well.
He said the meeting reinforced for him that there’s a “lot of passion in the community and a lot of support” for the VA.
“People want to have positive and solid change going forward,” he said.