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Northport VA hospital gets new director

In the past few years, the Northport VA

In the past few years, the Northport VA hospital, seen on June 6, 2016, has been dogged by crumbling infrastructure and high turnover in virtually all its key administrative roles.  Credit: Johnny Milano

The Northport VA Medical Center is getting a new director after nearly a year under the leadership of an interim chief.

Dr. Antonio Sanchez, 51, is an 18-year employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs and currently is chief of staff of the VA Caribbean Healthcare System based in Puerto Rico, the agency said Friday. He served as acting director of the Caribbean system for roughly two years, from December 2016 to January 2019. 

Sanchez, a psychiatrist, will take over Northport's top job from interim head Dr. Cathy Cruise in the next 45 to 60 days, said Dr. Joan E. McInerney, who oversees the VA's New York regional office.

He will be responsible for everything, from managing 1,800 employees and a multimillion-dollar budget to ensuring the care of more than 30,000 patients a year and running a string of satellite clinics that stretch from Valley Stream to Riverhead.

In the past few years, the medical center has been dogged by crumbling infrastructure and high turnover in virtually all its key administrative roles.

In an interview from San Juan, Sanchez talked about the many challenges of Long Island's only veterans hospital.

“That is part of the excitement of arriving there,” Sanchez said. “There are issues we need to address … so I’ll be pretty busy.”

Sanchez said he spent four or five days at the medical center a few weeks ago, meeting with McInerney and other regional leaders.

McInerney praised Sanchez, pointing out what she described as his "sound leadership qualities and proven experience."

Two members of Long Island's congressional delegation didn't comment on Sanchez directly but did speak about the medical center and the VA broadly. 

“Northport has had a lot of turnover in the last two and a half years," said Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove). "The Northport VA historically has been one of the best VAs in the country. It’s had a rough few years, and I hope this new leadership can turn it around.”

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) criticized VA leaders for not keeping members of Congress up to speed on developments at Northport. He said he hadn't been told that Cruise was going to be replaced.

“Obviously there have been real problems there, so I think it would help them to contact us early and bring us in,” King said. “It would have been a show of good faith to let us know beforehand.”

King pressed for a meeting between the Long Island delegation and the incoming director as soon as possible.

Sanchez has a New York connection: He did his undergraduate studies at SUNY Brockport upstate. He received both a medical degree and a master's degree in Healthcare Services Administration from the University of Puerto Rico's School of Medicine. He is a fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives and a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

Sanchez joined the VA in August 2000 as a staff psychiatrist at the Caribbean system. He served as the system's chief of psychiatry service from June 2006 to July 2009, according to the VA.

As psychiatry service chief, Sanchez improved access to mental health care and established a foundation to expand more programs for veterans.

Sanchez's next VA position was interim chief of staff. He then was chief of staff until he began his time as acting director.

Cruise, a Huntington native, became Northport's acting director in July after director Scott Guermonprez resigned a year into his tenure, citing personal and family reasons. She also holds the title of chief of staff. 

Since 2016, when Cruise arrived from the VA’s New York regional office, the medical center has had four medical center directors, three chiefs of staff and three nursing department directors, as well as the heads of the human resources department and physical plant.

And the 91-year-old medical center is showing its age. Last year brought two crises, for example. In January 2018, Northport had to close a homeless shelter on its campus after the heating system went out. A month later, the hospital had to shut down all five of its operating rooms to repair the air conditioning. The homeless shelter is still closed and isn't expected to open until at least October. 

In September, three months after Cruise took over, the VA's independent watchdog released the findings of a yearlong investigation into nursing shortages at the medical center. Northport’s senior leaders, the report said, knew about the staffing shortages, mismanaged the nurses to fill the gaps and allowed overtime costs to balloon to $1.5 million in 2017, a nearly $750,000 increase from the year before.

In an addendum to the report, Cruise told the VA's Office of the Inspector General that she agreed with the findings and would address the staffing shortages.

One project that Cruise will turn over to Sanchez is the consolidation of more operations into the hospital, one of nearly two dozen buildings on the 268-acre campus.

A consolidation will improve communication between employees and their supervisors and will limit the need for patients with several medical conditions to go to several buildings for care, Cruise said.

In an interview in late December, Cruise had made it clear that she wanted the job of director.

The new director will face other challenges.

Health analysts warn that growing pressure to increase the privatization of VA health care — allowing more veterans to see private doctors paid for by federal dollars — could divert resources during a time when the agency is already stressed by staffing shortages and squeezed to keep up with the latest technology.

Already, more than 2 million veterans have used VA health dollars to schedule 41 million appointments under the Veterans Choice Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2014. Under the program, for example, a veteran could see a private doctor if the nearest VA hospital was too far away or if the VA couldn't provide care within 30 days of requesting an appointment.

And that outsourcing is expected to increase under the VA Mission Act of 2018, which President Donald Trump signed in June to replace the Veterans Choice Act. Many of the new law's provisions build on the 2014 legislation, especially on the timeliness of appointments and distance of travel.