Embattled Altoona VA Hospital appoints 5th leader in 11 months

Another leadership change suggests an embattled Altoona, Pa. Veterans Administration (VA) hospital continues riding out a tumultuous period.

The James E. Van Zandt VA Hospital in Altoona, Pa. (Public domain photo from the hospital's Facebook page)

ALTOONA, Pa., February 1, 2017 — The embattled Altoona Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center is welcoming its fifth medical center director in less than a year. That’s according to an email to the staff from the head of the Veteran integrated Services Network (VISN) 4, which includes the Altoona VA Medical Center:

“Please join me in welcoming Chuck Thilges as Interim Medical Center Director of the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona.  Mr. Thilges has been the Chief Financial Officer of VA Healthcare – VISN 4 since February 7, 2016. Mr. Thilges’s detail will begin on Monday, January 30. We appreciate his service during the ongoing recruitment for a permanent director.”

Andrea Young, public affairs officer for the Altoona VA Medical Center issued this related statement:

“Chuck Thilges has been named Interim Director for the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center effective January 30, 2017. Mr. Thilges has been the Chief Financial Officer of VA Healthcare – VISN 4 since February 7, 2016. There have been two other Interim Directors at the VAMC in the last year since Mr. William Mills was detailed to the Memphis VAMC in February 2016 and an ongoing search for a permanent Director continues.

“VA leadership appoints interim directors to provide oversight for facilities that are pending hiring for permanent leadership. The acting directors ensure stability until a permanent director is hired.”

Mr. Thilges is, in fact, the fifth medical center director—the hospital’s chief executive— to serve since February, 2016. Previous directors have included Mr. William Mills, who moved to the Memphis VA Medical Center; Dr. Joseph Sharon, Interim director detailed from the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center; Dr. Judy Hayman, Interim director detailed from the Syracuse VAMC; and Mr. Charles Becker.

Once again, the Altoona VA Medical Center’s new medical director is serving on temporary assignment—”detailed” in Federal government parlance—and will leave his post within six months. This means that the hospital will have had six medical directors in less than two years.

The troubled Altoona VA hospital has faced a series of scandals in the last eleven months.

In February 2016, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) released results from an investigation in which two whistleblowers, James DeNofrio and Tim Skarada, accused the hospital of endangering patients and also accused Mills and the hospital leadership of covering it up. Mills left the Altoona VA Medical Center just days after the OSC results were released.

Skarada and DeNofrio were were subsequently the subjects of a protracted Administrative Investigative Board (AIB) which lasted nearly a year and concluded with no action taken.

An internal rating system known as Strategic Analytic for Improvement and Learning (SAIL) found that over the last year the hospital had steadily declined from being rated among the top 10 percent of all VA hospitals to joining the bottom 30 percent on the list.

Most recently, the Altoona Mirror interviewed Nicole Bukosky, a nurse at the hospital, who described a tortuous seventeen-month AIB investigative process which, as in the cases of DeNofrio and Skarada, ultimately concluded by finding no fault. Said Bukosky to the Altoona Mirror:

“As nurse manager, I was held (responsible) for allegations that were not substantiated by any evidence, simply because the VA wants to be able to say they hold their employees accountable.”

DeNofrio said the current shake-up is not likely to fix the underlying issues at the hospital, noting

“Ultimately, it does not matter how many changes are made to VA leadership when the chronic problems impacting patient care and safety are not being addressed. VA continues to rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking ship instead of fixing the gaping holes in the boat.

“The amount of time, energy, and resources that have been used to attack and silence the whistleblowers should have been used to solve the problems that they bring to light. It should not be about hurting good employees, it should be about helping Veterans. None of the problems across the VA are going to get better until those responsible are held accountable because punishing whistleblowers is ultimately punishing Veterans.”

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