Dave Whitmer arrived at the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center in February to take on the role of interim director. He was brought in as a “fixer,” tasked with turning around a VA that was struggling with problem managers, low staff morale and allegations of bullying and whistle-blower retaliation.
He was given just under a year to complete his mission. Now, that time’s almost up, and Whitmer is about to return to his previous role as the chief operating officer for the VA Sunshine Healthcare Network, a Florida-based VA network that oversees eight hospitals–many larger than Roseburg.
Just two weeks before his departure, Whitmer sat down for an interview with The News-Review.
Whitmer said he’s proud of the cultural transformation he started the Roseburg VA. He said he’s leaving the staff with new expectations about what they should expect from their leaders.
“That’s leaders who listen, leaders who make sure that there’s an environment that staff are safe to raise issues. They should have no fear of saying, ‘I have a concern about safety. I have a concern about something that we’re not doing right. I have an idea on how we can improve,’” Whitmer said.
“I don’t think that environment existed before,” he said. “People who really knew what to do and what the concerns were didn’t feel empowered to speak up. Now I believe they do.”
Whitmer said the new permanent director has been selected, but he’s not allowed to release his name. He did say that the new director is currently working in the VA Northwest Health Network, also known as VISN 20, which covers Oregon, Washington and Alaska. He’s currently in the midst of the VA’s standard vetting process, which is extensive and typically takes several months.
For the next 60 to 90 days, a second interim director will fill the gap. That interim director is Kevin Forrest, the associate director of the Manchester, New Hampshire VA. Forrest is an Army veteran who has been with the VA for about eight years.
Whitmer said the experience will give Forrest training and help him determine whether becoming a medical center director is the right career path for him.
During his time here, Whitmer removed several top VA managers from their posts, including the chief of staff and chief of surgery. He oversaw the raising of the hospitals ranking from one stars to two. He made regular rounds throughout the VA, hoping to encourage candid conversations by engaging with staff members in their daily work environments.
Whitmer’s final weeks are filled with additional signs of change, both positive and negative. At the VA’s North Bend clinic, where many veterans are being treated with telehealth appointments with Boise doctors, Whitmer believes the number of primary care doctors serving veterans in person will soon jump from one to three.
But not all the news is good. The Emerald Valley Emergency Physicians, a group of emergency room doctors contracting to provide services at the VA is attempting to back out of its contract. That could mean the VA will have to reopen the debate on whether it can continue to provide 24/7 staffing at the emergency department, Whitmer said.
And Whitmer’s handling of the turnover in management has been criticized as well. Some have suggested bad actors should have been fired immediately; instead, it took close to a year for some to lose their jobs and others lost supervisory responsibility but remained at the VA in other jobs.
Whitmer said it took time to obtain the investigative reports he needed before taking disciplinary action against the managers identified as the cause of the VA’s toxic culture. And there’s a bureaucratic process for firing them.
At the end of the day, he said, he’s happy that new managers have been recruited who understand the cultural transformation he has built.
Whitmer’s last official day as director is Dec. 21. He’ll go home to Tampa, Florida for Christmas, but will return to introduce the permanent director around when he comes on board.
Over his year in Roseburg, Whitmer said he has gained an appreciation both of Southern Oregon and of the job of a facility director. He found he loved both.
He said he’s visited all but about four states, and he’s never seen anything to rival the North Umpqua River and the Oregon Coast. He was never much of a hiker, but here he was inspired to buy hiking boots.
“This is the most beautiful area of the country by far. There’s no question,” he said.
He also learned here that he’d really like to become the director of another medical facility, though he hopes the next one will be in Florida.
“I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. I really have. This has been a great assignment. I’m proud of our team, I’m proud of the results we’ve achieved as a team, and I’m proud of where I think that they will go in the future and what the future for Roseburg is,” he said.
Whitmer said soon the campus will be home not only to the hospital and the Roseburg National Cemetery Annex, but also a satellite office of the Veterans Benefits Administration. At some point, a state veterans home is expected to follow. No other VA of Roseburg’s size in the country offers all that, he said.
He sees Roseburg becoming the focal point for veteran activity in South and Central Oregon. His hopes also extend to community projects he thinks would be really beneficial, including a veterans court and an Allied Health College in Roseburg.
Whitmer said his advice for the incoming leaders at the Roseburg VA is that they continue on the right path. He said the one thing that has really impressed him here is the quality of the staff members, and their commitment to the mission of serving veterans.
“We have a great team, and they just needed great leadership to match their efforts. And that’s what I hope that I’ve started. I hope that they feel that’s what happened. That’s what I would encourage the new directors to do, is to rise to the level of the quality of staff that we have,” he said.
He also said he has urged the staff to let go of the VA’s past and refuse to be defined by it.
“That past is behind us. We will not get tripped up on that past. Roseburg should be defined by what its future is going to be, and the future is incredibly bright,” he said.