Former Walter Reed Chief to Take Over at Troubled VA Medical Center

The VA medical center in Washington, D.C., is under investigation after a veteran was found dead in his vehicle parked at the facility in May 2017. Washington DC VA Medical Center/Facebook

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie on Monday named retired Army Col. Michael Heimall, a seasoned military health care system administrator, to take over at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center. His unstated mission: to get the hospital off the VA's "critical" list.

"Michael's proven experience is what we need to continue to stabilize and make further improvements at the medical center," Wilkie said in a statement.

The center was once a flagship in the VA system but has been the subject of two scathing VA Inspector General's reports warning that patients were at risk.

"I believe our employees, volunteers and veterans will greatly benefit from his strong leadership," Wilkie said of Heimall, who previously served as chief of staff at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, from 2015 to 2017.

Heimall, a fellow at the American College of Healthcare Executives since 2007, received his commission while earning a Bachelor of Arts degree at Norwich University in Vermont. He holds Master of Strategic Studies degree from the Army War College, as well as a Master of Health Administration degree from Baylor University.

As director at the D.C. center, he will be in charge of a facility serving more than 121,000 veterans in the D.C. area, on an operating budget of $610 million.

The continuing problems at the hospital were considered a factor in President Donald Trump's decision last March to fire then-VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin.

In April 2017, VA Inspector General Michael Missal took the unusual step of issuing a preliminary report on the center to prod the Veterans Health Administration into action.

Missal's report said that storage areas for medical supplies were filthy, management was clueless on what was in the storage areas, medical supply rejects may have been used on patients and more than $150 million in supplies and equipment had never been inventoried.

The IG said that staff at the center at times had to make emergency runs to neighboring hospitals to ask for supplies.

The hospital had to borrow bone material for knee replacement surgeries and also ran out of tubes needed for kidney dialysis, forcing staff to go to a private-sector hospital to procure them, the IG's interim report found.

In March 2018, Missal issued a full report, titled "Persistent and Pervasive Problems at the Washington, DC, VA Medical Center Placed Patients and Assets at Unnecessary Risk."

Following the first IG report, Shulkin replaced the hospital's director and the medical center has since functioned with a series of acting directors until Heimall's appointment.

Last month, the VA's Strategic Analytics for Improvement and Learning (SAIL) report rated all hospitals in the system. Nine were on the "high risk" list and the D.C. center was listed as "critical."

In early August, in his second week on the job, Wilkie visited the center to gauge whether performance had improved.

"We had a good visit today," he said later in a statement. "And I appreciated hearing from facility and regional leadership on the important work that has been done to address the Inspector General's concerns, as well as plans for resolving all its remaining recommendations."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

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