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New Leader Sees Brighter Future for Bedford VA

July 16, 2018 GMT

BEDFORD -- It’s been a cornerstone of the local community for nine decades.

A place so many veterans count on for health care.

But in recent years, the Bedford VA Medical Center has been plagued by scandals, including patient deaths, dangerous conditions, retaliation against whistleblowers and employees diverting VA money.

Those issues were not mentioned on Saturday during the “assumption of duty” ceremony for new Director Joan Clifford, who has been the permanent leader at the troubled Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital since March.

She emphasized that the center is focused on “moving forward.”

“From the day I started, people have been willing to do whatever they needed to do to get things moving forward,” Clifford said after the ceremony, which took place during the Bedford VA’s 90th anniversary celebration on Saturday.

“People have been engaged,” she added. “Things are going good.”

How has she gone about restoring trust and repairing the hospital’s reputation? It has all started with making the rounds, speaking with veterans and their families, she said.

“That’s the best way to get information about how things are going, and trying to stay on top of it,” Clifford said.

“We have a lot of work to do,” she added.

Clifford, a daughter of a World War II Army veteran, has more than 35 years of experience as a registered nurse with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

She was the deputy nurse executive in the Boston VA system, and was most recently the deputy assistant deputy under secretary for health for Access to Care at the VA’s central office in Washington, D.C.

Clifford said she’s focused on modernization efforts at the Bedford VA, notably their efficiencies and employee engagement, “so we can continue to provide the best service for America’s heroes.”

The Bedford VA will increase its outreach efforts to bring more veterans into the system, she said. They plan to expand their services, including partnering with the Boston VA to bring more specialty care services up to the Bedford campus.

Clifford said they will also offer new therapies, such as yoga and tai chi.

“She will guide us forward in innovations in care and practice that will improve what we do for our veterans,” said Dan Berlowitz, Bedford VA’s chief of staff.

The hospital has had two interim directors since the VA removed Christine Croteau, the last permanent director, in 2016 amid an ethics investigation.

Under Croteau’s leadership, several patients fatally overdosed inside the VA’s satellite treatment program in Lowell, where there was a rampant drug culture and lax oversight, sources said.

It’s a new chapter for the organization as Clifford takes over, said Barrett Franklin, acting network director for the VA New England Healthcare System.

“We are very fortunate to have an individual of her caliber and skills at the helm,” Franklin said, before presenting Clifford with a compass at the ceremony. “As the leader of the organization, you will set its path today and for years to come.”

Franklin first met Clifford in 2009, when both worked in the Boston VA health care system. She was in the nursing service, and he was in biomedical engineering.

He approached the nursing team to make a change with technology, but the sides could not resolve the issue.

Clifford agreed change was needed, that they needed to put a plan in place, but disagreed with the engineering team’s approach. She requested for them to go back and develop a more clearly laid out plan.

Franklin’s takeaway after this interaction: Clifford is direct, fair and maintains an open mind.

“I am confident each of these aspects of her leadership, along with her welcoming demeanor, will serve our veterans in this medical center well,” Franklin said.

Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.