Exclusive: VA whistleblower says veterans suffered as Rep. Kuster ignored his pleas for help
The former chairman of the Department of Medicine at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Manchester, New Hampshire told Big League Politics he is shocked that Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D.-N.H.) would take credit for exposing and correcting problems at the hospital–after she ignored his pleas for help fixing them.
“When we met with Congresswoman Kuster, she was resistant to helping us, her first response was that the Manchester VA Medical Center was not in her congressional district, which was shocking–half the veterans, who use the VA there are constituents of hers,” said Dr. Stewart I. Levenson, a board-certified rheumatologist, who specializes in diseases of connective tissue.
Kuster is a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Levenson is now running as a Republican to unseat Kuster, who holds the state’s 2nd congressional district.
“We were all so surprised by her inattention, one of the other doctors called me and said: ‘You should run against her.’ I said I could never raise that sort of money, or what have you, and thinking about it and looking into it, and when I saw things were not improving, I felt like this was something I could do,” he said.
Levenson said he came to New Hampshire to attend the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, and after he completed his medical training he decided to make New Hampshire his home. Working for the VA in Manchester allowed him to settle in the Granite State.
“There are problems, but I have also known very dedicated workers at the VA–many of the employees are veterans themselves and they certainly care about the patients,” Levenson said. “In this case, the veterans were not getting care, I could not obtain the care they needed through the system and that is when I decided to see Congresswoman Kuster.”
The doctor met with Kuster at the urging of his medical colleagues in May 2016 after failing to change the practices and culture of the medical center from within, he said, although at the time he also was the medical director of all of the VA’s New England facilities.
“Because she did not want to get involved, I was forced to make the next step of going to the media,” he said. “It was not something I looked forward to or wanted to do.”
Levenson said he was further galled by Kuster, when after the media reports came out in May detailing the problems at the Manchester veterans hospital, she stepped forward as if she was working on solutions. “She took credit for all the work exposing all the corruption there.”
It is Kuster’s M.O., he said.
“She does nothing and if something happens, she takes credit for it,” the Queens, New York-native said.
“Like just last week, another report came out,” he said. “She releases a huge statement about how the VA can’t police itself, how she’s on top of it again. She pays lip service to all these problems and does nothing to help the veterans.”
The report the doctor referred to is the Jan. 25 letter from Henry J. Kerner, the special counsel appointed to investigate the Veterans Affairs Department, to President Donald J. Trump.
Kerner is a long-time Capitol Hill staffer with stints at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the office of Sen. John S. McCain III (R.-Ariz.)
In the letter, Kerner verified to the president, that the hospital was rife with hazardous ethical and sanitary behavior that led to the avoidable deaths and aggravation of conditions suffered by the veterans at the Manchester VA Medical Center.
The medical center opened in 1950 on the former estate of Frederick Smyth, who served as Manchester’s mayor and governor of New Hampshire. It is the only veterans hospital in the state and rather than a regular hospital, the medical center functions as a collection of clinics.
Kerner singled out one doctor at the center’s Spinal Cord Unit for sanction in his letter to the president: Dr. Muhammad Huq.
For more than 10 years, 2002 to 2012, Huq would cut and paste information from patients charts, a practice that was tolerated by the center’s leadership, although the inaccurate and disconnected charts led to a significantly higher rate among the veteran patients of myelopathy, a severe disease of the spinal cord, according to the report.
The VA transferred Huq out of the clinic in 2012 and made him a primary care physician at the medical center, until 2015, when he was transferred to another hospital.
The report also documented that more than 20 percent of the follow-up appointments at the spinal clinic were not made in the required time during 2015 and 2016 and that for more than half of these delayed appointments, there was no notation or explanation.
In addition to the repeated use of dirty or contaminated instruments, Kerner described in detail the fly infestation in the center’s Operation Room No. 2. The swarming cluster flies were first reported in 2012 and flies have been seen in the operating room as recently as January, Kerner said.
There have been other problems, not part of the special counsel’s report.
In July, a burst pipe flooded five floors at the clinic, including where doctors met with female veterans and in August, a distraught veteran, perhaps armed, put the center into a lockdown with police rifleman surrounding the facility during a 30-minute showdown that ended with the veteran being taken away for further evaluation. In December, the hospital had to be shut down to combat a scourge of bed bugs.
In the summer of 2017, Veterans Affairs Secretary David J. Shulkin fired the center’s director Danielle Ocker, her chief of staff James Schlosser and the center’s head of nursing Carol Williams.
When Ocker was appointed to lead the Manchester VA Medical Center, she was praised by Kuster.
“With a background in both clinical and administrative leadership, Danielle understands the compassion and dedication that this position demands,” Kuster said. “I know that Danielle will continue to serve Granite State veterans well in this new capacity at the helm of the Medical Center.”
For Levenson, who lost his wife of 20 years to ovarian cancer, the road forward is the road to Washington.
Levenson said that after years of career success working for the VA, it was completely outside his professional experience to become a media whistleblower.
“When something came to my attention, I would work to fix it,” he said. “Under a previous administration, locally, we were able to make inroads. There were things I couldn’t change, but anything I tried to change, I did have some success.”
In the end, he put the veterans ahead of his own situation, because when he came forward to expose the shortcomings at the Manchester veterans hospital, he made impossible to continue working there, he said.
“I knew once I went to the media, I’d be leaving the VA,” he said.
“It was very anxiety provoking,” the doctor said. “If I had remained silent, I had advanced professionally, I would have continued to advance in my career, but I could not live with myself.”
Then, came the next step, he said.
“Once I became a whistleblower and Congresswoman Kuster would not substantively help the veterans, I decided that I was going to run for Congress to hold the VA accountable and to go down to Washinton to expose those not assisting,” he said.
Levenson said he retired from the VA after 20 years and is now a full-time candidate making his case to the voters.
Over and over, voters have told the doctor that every time they send someone to Washington to fix corruption in Washington, they become corrupt themselves, but because Levenson sacrificed his own career to expose how the VA mishandles veterans, he has credibility, he said.
“I’m viewed as the conservative outsider, who’s demonstrated a willingness to hold government officials accountable,” he said.
“I am an expert at healthcare and I believe in the repeal of what I called the ‘Unaffordable Care Act,’ I believe in securing our borders, I want to go to Washington to work with our president and fundamentally change the system.”