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Veterans troubled over newly tapped director of Hawaii VA health system

Updated: 
April 19, 2017 - 9:05am

KAILUA-KONA — Hawaii veterans aren’t worried about new Director of the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System Jennifer Gutowski’s ability to fix whatever problems may already exist inside the system.

They’re fearful she’s going to make those problems worse.

“When it was announced she was coming over here to head the Hawaiian VA, none of us were happy about that because she’s got such a bad record,” said Bill Flynn, chaplain at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 12122 in Kona and also the post’s unofficial service officer for the past two years. “We do not want her here at all.”

Gutowski, who will assume the position on May 15, was appointed by the VA Secretary to direct a health system that administers services to almost 130,000 veterans across Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Prior to her appointment in Hawaii, Gutowski spent 18 years with the VA in a variety of capacities and locations. She served most of the last five years as associate director with the Southern Arizona VA, including a stint as acting director from January 2016-March 2017.

Based on misconduct prior to and during her time in Arizona, the branch of the VA she helped oversee became mired in controversy because of long wait times for patient appointments and a variety of allegations brought by whistleblowers as to why access was limited.

The allegations spurred a subsequent investigation by the Office of Inspector General (OIG). The OIG fully substantiated one of four claims it investigated — that managers at the branch violated the VA’s scheduling directive in early 2014, a year and a half after Gutowski was hired, when they “improperly directed scheduling staff to zero out patient wait times.”

Patient wait times are calculated by comparing a patient’s desired date for an appointment against the actual date on which the patient was seen. When calling for an appointment patients are asked to supply schedulers with a desired appointment date, despite being unaware as to “scheduling capacity” and the feasibility of being seen on the date requested.

Schedulers are directed to log the desired date along with the date a patient is actually seen. According to the OIG report, dated Nov. 2016, schedulers were instructed by managers to zero out the two dates — or falsify scheduling records by altering the dates to reflect that the desired appointment date was the same as the scheduled appointment date.

The report found that 76 percent of 5,802 routine appointments it reviewed between December 2013-August 2014 showed the same desired and scheduled dates.

Upon a review of 4,855 routine appointments at the clinic between October 2015-March 2016, the number of coinciding desired and scheduled dates dropped to a rate of 46 percent.

OIG also investigated claims by a former employee that these inappropriate scheduling practices led to the endangerment of some veterans’ health. OIG concluded that was incorrect after reviewing the cases of 13 veterans who waited more than 30 days for each of a combined 15 appointments and died before the appointment dates.

“Based on the evidence … OHI inspectors concluded that appointment delays did not adversely affect the patients’ care,” the report stated.

Other problems listed in the report indicate that several hundred paper copies of veteran appointment requests to see specialists were found in the desks of employees and were never entered into the Electronic Wait List, leading to longer wait times for those patients.

Investigators also confirmed that employees discontinued some consults that failed to meet the required 30-day turnaround for an appointment.

Some of these problems began or occurred before Gutowski was hired while others took place or continued after she joined the staff as associate director in July 2012. In an email to WHT Tuesday morning, Gutowski wrote that she never directed any subordinate to engage in any falsifying of records or other forms of identified misconduct.

When asked when she became aware of the misconduct occurring at the Southern Arizona VA, Gutowski referenced the OIG report from November of last year.

That is when the misconduct was confirmed by investigators, but a former VA administrator named Pat McCoy told KGUN9-TV in Tuscon, Arizona, last November that she brought the issue to Gutowski and the rest of the Southern Arizona VA’s top staff long before then.

“(Gutowski) is the associate director,” McCoy said to KGUN9-TV. “She’s as responsible as (former Director Jonathan Gardner). This whole pentad is responsible for what went on with this data. They’re all responsible. They all knew about it. The chiefs of staff knew about it. I know they did. I told them.”

Gutowski said Tuesday she was appreciative of the OIG investigation, noting it includes claims stretching as far back as 2008 — four years before she arrived in Arizona — and that leadership at the VA branch has made “significant changes since then.”

“I find these past actions inappropriate and not consistent with our VA values,” Gutowski said. “Please know that I have, and will, continue to address any allegations of wrongdoing brought forward. My expectation for myself is the same as the expectations that we have for my staff – (that) we serve our veterans with integrity and transparency.”

Despite VA reforms and Gutowski’s assurances, Flynn said he and his fellow veterans can’t discern why someone embroiled in such a scandal would be given control of a health care system upon which they all rely after the OIG’s findings.

“They were probably looking for someplace nice and far away to dump her,” Flynn speculated. “She was part of the problem (in Arizona). Why is she still working for the VA at all? That’s the main issue. She won’t make it better. All she’ll do is make it worse.”

Flynn wasn’t alone in his concern or criticism of Gutowski’s appointment to Hawaii.

Dale Wilson — a PhD., retired U.S. Army Major and Commander of Hawaii’s Military Order of the Purple Heart — said he was “less than thrilled, to say the least” to learn Gutowski would be assuming the position.

“The fact that she was a part of that system does not bode well — especially given the very complex nature of the VA system here in (Hawaii),” Wilson wrote in an email to WHT. “Given the problems they had (in Arizona), it is, in my opinion, unlikely to expect she will provide the level of competent leadership we so badly need here.”

Gutowski said she’s looking forward to sitting down with veterans who have questions and concerns. She referenced close ties to veteran service organizations in Tuscon and said she hopes to establish the same connections in Hawaii, a process sure to be laden with difficult questions about what occurred during her time in Arizona.

“I encourage them to let me know their concerns so we can work together to make the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System a place where veterans receive timely, high quality care,” Gutowski said. “My plan is to listen, listen, listen, and then work together on establishing objectives and initiatives to drive us into the future assuring effective access, high quality and positive Veteran and employee experiences while maintaining stewardship of taxpayer dollars.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii’s 2nd District, a veteran herself who has authored, sponsored and supported a multitude of measures at the federal level focusing on veterans affairs, said Monday in an email that she plans to make inquiries as to the nature of Gutowski’s involvement in the problems that plagued the Southern Arizona VA for several years.

“If claims that Jennifer Gutowski was in any way involved in the problems veterans face in Arizona, then there will need to be very careful consideration as to whether or not she would be a suitable VA health director for Hawaii,” Gabbard wrote.

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