CINCINNATI - The new director of the Cincinnati VA Medical Center said Tuesday that she will have a new strategic plan in place within 30 days that will address past whistleblowers' concerns while moving the hospital toward improved morale and high-quality patient care.
“I think we have had some setbacks and whether those are valid allegations or not, that’s to be determined,” said Vivian Hutson, a retired Army Colonel who started her new job Oct. 3. “But I’m committed, along with my team, that whatever we didn’t get quite right, we’ll get right. I can assure you that we will have integrity in the process and transparent communication.”
Hutson is Cincinnati VA’s third director since 2015. Her hiring was the VA fifth leadership change in Cincinnati since February, when an investigation by the Scripps Washington Bureau and WCPO explored whistleblower allegations of cost cutting, patient care problems and managerial misconduct. The VA has launched several investigations, but it has released no findings on most of them.
Hutson said she was fully aware of the allegations when interviewed for the job, but she hasn’t reached out specifically to whistleblowers since taking the helm in Cincinnati.
“I’ve been talking to just about anyone whom I encounter in this hospital,” she said. “I don’t really know whether they’re whistleblowers or not. And to be honest with you, I’m hoping that our hospital can move on in the sense that everyone has a voice. I value everyone’s opinion and perspective. So, if they were whistleblowers, that’s fine. If not, all the same.”
Hutson came to the VA from the U.S. Army Office of the Surgeon General, having recently retired from its Medical Specialist Corps after 30 years of military service. A friend told her the VA had 32 director-level positions open, so she decided to apply, not knowing the four-month interview process would end in Cincinnati.
During a June site visit, Hutson said she met a couple that had worked as Cincinnati VA volunteers for 10 years.
“They were so welcoming,” she said, “the sense of home, very much a family – really overwhelmed me."
She also “felt a connection” with staff members she met in three round table discussions.
“I’m very passionate about this mission,” she said. “I’m a veteran. I served 30 years. My husband served 28 years. My father in law served two tours in Vietnam. Lots of my friends and colleagues are also veterans. That makes it very personal for me.”
Hutson has tried to bring more transparency to the hospital by starting every morning with “a huddle” of hospital leaders who “talk about what happened in our hospital within in the last 24 hours and anything that may have an impact on patient safety, staff safety and quality.”
Those leaders will participate in a one-day strategic planning session in the next few weeks that will evaluate what services should expand or contract along with procedural changes that should be implemented in the hospital. A Nov. 22 town hall meeting is planned along with staff meetings, where employees can voice concerns.
Hutson pointed to signs of progress in addressing issues raised in Scripps and WCPO reports, including staff shortages.
In the press release announcing Hutson’s hiring, the Cincinnati VA said it hired 420 employees, including 30 nurses in its just-ended 2016 fiscal year. Hutson didn’t know how many jobs remain vacant, but said the new hires included three orthopedic surgeons who replaced part-time doctors who told Scripps and WCPO they were forced out by former hospital leaders.
“We have reduced the turnover in our nursing staff,” she said. “We have hired new physicians and in terms of getting the staff that we need to do the job, I absolutely think that we are on the right track.”
On the issue of dirty surgical equipment, Hutson said the Cincinnati VA is building a new space for sterilization.
“We will have more space and better equipment to handle that process,” she said. “We just had our Joint Commission survey here and it was not an issue that was identified.”
The hospital-accrediting board issued “very few findings” in its review of patient care at the Cincinnati VA.
“They validated our processes,” she said. “We are one of the hospitals that have very few findings. So, I know that we provide high quality, safe patient care.”