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1:55 AM Sat, Oct. 20th

VA leadership and staff departures prompt skepticism over agency’s mission and future

Top VA leaders leave positions

Dr. M. Keith Piatt and Dr. Kerri Wilhoite

Dr. M. Keith Piatt and Dr. Kerri Wilhoite

More than a dozen top VA leaders and supervisors, including two of the four top-tier administrators, will be departing the 1,100-employee agency in the next month, adding to a 12.6 percent turnover rate between May and July.

Some Northern Arizona Veteran Affairs Health Care System insiders say it is a symptom of a leadership style counterproductive to the agency’s longstanding veteran-centric mission. They say this exodus speaks to an effort to silence those willing to speak out for better treatment of their veteran clientele.

“It’s a mess,” one 30-year employee said of diminishing morale.

In August, Dr. M. Keith Piatt, chief of medical staff, will retire. The same month, Dr. Kerri Wilhoite, associate director of patient care services/nurse executive will leave for a similar position at the VA in Tucson.

Those two follow the May retirement of Dr. Jerry Easterday, a psychiatrist who headed the VA’s mental health services for nine years. Earlier in the year, the two top Human Resource administrators, Mary Pugh and Christine Miller, resigned. Other clinicians and supervisors are also in the mix.

The VA job website now lists 20 vacant positions, not including the additional dozen expected in the next two months. Since April, the VA has filled 96 vacancies, all but about 20 of those were internal moves.

Staffing shortages over the last couple years have pushed employees to multi-task more than some consider beneficial, according to employees and managers. Piatt doesn’t disagree. At no time, however, did the VA accept more patients than is safe, occasionally setting limits on how many patients could be accepted, he said.

The VA maintains good relationships with community health care providers and makes referrals when appropriate. At this time, Prescott has 12 four-person primary care teams, and is now seeking to add another.

Medical Center Director Barbara Oemcke admits losing two of her revered, top executives is a “big transition” for the agency.

“They have made significant contributions to the institution, and have a real heart for their employees and the veterans they serve,” she said.

In an institution of this size, leaders do come and go, although to lose two at once is an anomaly, Oemcke said. She said she has every faith the remaining staff will continue their legacy because “they hold close to their heart the care for our veterans.”

Such a period of change can be unsettling for all involved, Oemcke noted. Her promise is to make every effort to assure there are no gaps in services for northern Arizona’s 27,000 veterans.

One new hire in April, Human Resources Officer Donald Jackson, has proved a key to helping fill vacancies that went unfilled for long stretches due to lack of administrative staff to recruit candidates, she said. Regional VA officials will assist with hiring interim officials to cover until permanent candidates are hired.

Staff and advocates, though, fear the administration is bowing to the national squeeze on all VA institutions to move toward private rather than agency care. Such an approach will likely force more of those who are most capable of managing the unique needs of veterans out the door, they said.

The VA is under considerable scrutiny that can infuse pressure into the workforce, Oemcke concurred. To that end, she said, this week she arranged for VA psychologists to offer training to managers so they can help their staff navigate through this trying time.

“I’d say it is really important for us to honor where we’ve been and how we’ve got here,” Oemcke said. “We want to recognize the contributions of leadership, at all levels of the organization, who brought us to where we are. We are a very veteran-centric community, and are known for good relations with the community.”

She assured this VA’s mission remains unchanged. Staff and advocates say those words have to be backed up with action.

The Prescott VA is in the midst of some $30 million worth of construction. Long-term staff suggest these may be the start of refocusing traditional veteran health care to in-and-out service.

“Are we here for the veterans or are we here to make (the campus) beautiful?” queried one employee.

Despite the demands that come with this job, Piatt described his retirement as “bittersweet. He said he hates to leave behind the “beautiful people” who “do everything” to care for this region’s veterans.

“It was a wonder to view … marvelous,” he said.

Likewise, Wilhoite said she will miss those who dignify “our nation’s heroes” with their devotion.

Arizona has “great beauty but it is the people who shine the most,” Wilhoite said.