VA Task Force Co-Chair Cites Progress, Value of 'Renaissance Thinking'

Feb 14, 2018

Jennifer MacDonald, co-chair of the VA task force.
Credit Peter Biello/NHPR

The task force looking at the future of the Manchester VA met again Wednesday and will meet all day Thursday. Members are trying to come up with a tentative set of recommendations on how to best provide VA health care to New Hampshire's veterans.

The task force itself was created as a response to whistleblower allegations of substandard care that harmed some VA patients. Earlier today, in between sessions, NHPR's Peter Biello spoke with the task force co-chair, Dr. Jennifer MacDonald.

How close is the task force to making its recommendations?

We are making excellent progress. We are on schedule and I would even venture to say a bit ahead of schedule. We will make our final presentation of findings to the Special Medical Advisory Group on April 11.

The discussion throughout seems to be looking for the right balance between finding care here, building here, and building partnerships with the community. Where do you think that balance is at this point? Or is it too soon to say?

I think we are making good progress toward finding where that balance exists and what I'm excited to see is the renaissance thinking that's happening in this space. There really is an emphasis on how do we build something that not just is internal to VA but works for this community, works across multiple levels and in multiple spaces. Because I think there's a recognition here from this capable group of executives that veterans lives - peoples lives - exist beyond the walls of the medical center. And so I'm excited to see that there's an emphasis here of finding that balance in a way that really works and has impact for veterans themselves and for employee empowerment.

You got some results from veterans themselves - more than 700 responses from a survey. How important are those responses and making your decision?

They're absolutely critical. In my view, everything we decide should be founded on excellent listening to what our veterans needs and wants are and so in my view every decision we make should be founded on those responses and the feedback of our focus groups and other spaces we've heard from veterans.

Right, and you're still collecting some survey responses, right, until the middle of next week, I believe, the 20th?

We are, yes, until the 20th, and I would encourage anyone who hears this message to please provide us that feedback. That's a critical point in our in our decision making. 

The whistleblowers had been pushing hard for a full-service hospital or full-service medical center. Is that option still on the table?

Absolutely. Every option is on the table and we want to be thinking in this space in a way that isn't restricted by resources that isn't restricted by any history or even bureaucracy, if you will. We want to put every option on the table for New Hampshire veterans and then find the right fit from there. So whether that ends up being full service brick and mortar or full service through partnerships and collaboration with the community, remains yet to be determined. But every option is on the table.

And to what extent is cost a factor in the task force's decision-making?

Cost will be a factor in the ultimate decisions that are made. I'm certain as they would be in any resource-limited organization. However, for the task force, our mission is to figure out what is right for New Hampshire veterans. So while feasibility is taken into consideration the primary focus is what are the wants and needs of veterans and the wants and needs of employees. And I think if we keep that as our compass, cost will follow. But cost is a side issue. We really want to figure out what's right for this space and for the people here.

You came into this process of fairly late. What surprised you when you first started learning about the Manchester VA, and what it was able to offer?

The investment of the people here of the community as we saw in the employee survey results. Even amidst the challenges that Manchester and the people here have faced, there is such a dedication to mission and that's what gives me the greatest hope that we will succeed in finding this new way forward. What has struck me is the level of investment and the level of engagement in this space. People care about the Manchester VA and that's excellent material to be working with and leading this task force.