Three weeks ago, Interim Director Dave Whitmer had no idea he’d be moving to Southern Oregon to run the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center. And he doesn’t plan to stay more than a year. But while he’s here, he hopes to stabilize the struggling VA and change it for the better. Then, he’ll help pick his replacement and return home.
Whitmer won’t be applying to be the next permanent director for the Roseburg VA because he doesn’t need to. He already has a job as the chief operating officer for the Florida-based Sunshine Health Network. It’s the largest VA network in the country, overseeing eight hospitals, 63 clinics and 29,000 employees in Florida, South Georgia, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
In the wake of a federal investigation into what investigators called the Roseburg VA’s “toxic culture,” Whitmer’s boss Miguel LaPuz had been out to help assess the problems here. It was LaPuz who asked Whitmer to step into the interim director role. He thought he could help the hospital change and move forward.
“When my boss asked me to come here and be part of a healing process, I said absolutely. I’m committed to public health. I’m committed to supporting our veterans,” he said.
As Whitmer tells the story, he next had to clear the move with his “real boss,” his wife of 30 years. She was supportive.
And that’s how Whitmer found himself taking a 3,000-mile airplane trip and a three-hour drive to Roseburg. He started as interim director on Monday.
Thursday, he spoke to The News-Review about what he hopes to accomplish while he’s here.
Whitmer describes himself as an optimistic person. He’s been happy to hear some positive things about the VA since arriving in Roseburg. Many veterans have told him they are happy with the care they receive at the VA, he said.
As for changing the culture within the VA, Whitmer said he wants to look forward, because he can’t re-litigate the past.
“I think that folks are ready to kind of put the past behind them and move forward, and that’s certainly the vision I have,” he said.
One of the things he doesn’t want to see in the Roseburg VA’s future is whistle-blower retaliation. The prevalence of such retaliation was a primary focus of investigators who interviewed about 200 VA employees in November and December. Afterward, investigators reported senior leadership changes were in the offing. Shortly after that, Director Doug Paxton stepped down, as did Chief of Surgery Dinesh Ranjan, who had been the focus of allegations of bullying and retaliation.
Whitmer sees whistle-blowers as heroic, and said employees will be heard while he’s in charge.
“I will not tolerate any type of retaliation against a whistle-blower. A whistle-blower who points out something is wrong is taking a very courageous step,” he said.
Walking through the VA campus Thursday, Whitmer said he was struck by its beauty. It reminded him of the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Maryland, where he worked for 15 years. Building 1, the oldest on campus, looks very like the Building 1 on the NIH campus, he said.
“When I stepped on the campus of the National Institutes of Health...I just fell in love with the place,” he said.
Whitmer had previously been a high school teacher and coach in Leesburg, Florida, but had gone back to school to study public administration.
In 1999, he took a job as a supervisory management analyst at the NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and then moved his way up and around the NIH, becoming an executive officer at its Center for Scientific Review, and then an executive officer at its National Eye Institute.
Though he wasn’t a scientist himself, he picked up knowledge and a love of the subject from his time in public health. He’s proud of the achievements of the scientists he worked with at the NIH, noting that some discovered genes that can predict breast cancer, while others developed an artificial eye called the Argus II. This “bionic eye” was a chip that could be inserted into the back of the eye of a patient with low or no vision and allow them to see things like the shapes of doors and sidewalks.
Later, when he was working at the VA, Whitmer had the thrill of seeing this brand new technology change the life of a 19-year veteran who was threatened with the loss of his job due to his vision problems.
“We gave that veteran his sight back. It’s the not the sight that you and I have, but we gave that veteran independence,” he said.
It reinforced for him the value of the administrative work he’d done to ensure the artificial eye program got the funding it needed, and the value of the work he does at the VA.
As for his current posting at the Roseburg VA, Whitmer said his intention is to be “a change agent.”
“My focus will number one always be what’s in the best interest of the long-term success of this health care system, to recognize that we have to make changes with a view toward improving the experience of the veteran, and also making sure that the employee experience and the morale of the organization is positive, because that in turn leads to better outcomes for veterans,” he said.
He also promised transparency, which he said is how he plans to regain trust in the VA.
When the investigators’ final report on its investigation into whistle-blower retaliation is complete, he said, he will share the recommendations for change and the actions the VA intends to take. Once he’s convinced the necessary cultural transformation has been made, his final job here will be to help select his successor. He didn’t come here to be a caretaker, he told a group of veterans who gathered outside Building 1 to speak with him Thursday, and he’s not a candidate for the permanent director job.
He just wants to help the VA heal and get on the right path. Then, it’s back to the Sunshine State.