John Ginnity took a conciliatory tone while sitting before 120 veterans at a town hall meeting last week. The top administrator for the VA Montana Health Care System offered his pleas and apologies, and vowed to build a more proactive agency as it begins writing its next chapter.
Veterans from all eras left the meeting feeling upbeat and somewhat empowered, though one burning question remained. Can the state’s acting VA director turn the ship after scandal hobbled the agency for much of last year?
Ginnity thinks so, and he says it with confidence.
“The only way you rebuild trust or build trust is through actions,” Ginnity said after the meeting. “I feel the veterans in Montana are amazing supporters of VA Montana, and some of the concerns they have are very localized and we need to address them. It’s not a monumental task.”
Ginnity’s tone marked a notable shift in what some have come to see as an impenetrable agency mired in bureaucratic regulations and red tape. The VA’s undignified reputation came to a head last year when it fell under scrutiny for its lack of transparency, its falsification of patient records and the length of time some patients waited for appointments.
The shakeup led to further oversight by Congress and prompted the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, along with the retirement of VA Montana director Christine Gregory, who said she wanted to spend more time with family.
Gregory held the post for 16 months. She replaced Robin Korogi, who was reassigned after questions surfaced regarding her ability to lead the VA hospital at Fort Harrison and its Montana-based clinics.
While the changes were taking place in Montana – and just before the scandal broke nationally – Ginnity was finishing a 23-year career with the U.S. Air Force. He came straight into the VA and said it wasn’t easy watching the agency he served come under fire, though it has helped make it more responsive.
“When you find a crisis or a situation like this that’s as public as it was, it gives us the momentum to push things forward a little bit quicker,” Ginnity said. “The amount of staffing we’ve been able to get over the last year would have been impossible if we hadn’t gone though that.”
Ginnity is running VA Montana as the federal agency undergoes the largest reorganization in its history. The town hall meeting was the third held in Montana in recent months and was encouraged by VA Secretary Robert McDonald.
Back in November, McDonald told "60 Minutes" that he planned to bring more accountability to the VA and hire more employees. A nurse practitioner will join the VA staff in Hamilton this March, making face-to-face exams possible for local vets.
The state is also working with the General Services Administration to acquire the old federal building in downtown Missoula. If the details pan out, it plans to convert the building into a new outpatient clinic to meet projected growth and patient needs in the years ahead.
But while such steps are large and necessary, it’s the personal accountability that Ginnity hopes to restore to VA Montana. Sitting before veterans to answer their questions was a starting point, he said, and it didn’t go unnoticed by those in attendance.
“It’s disappointing when I see some of these issues that could have been resolved with the right phone call, instead of them having to wait for a town hall – I wish that didn’t happen,” Ginnity said. “All of our issues are solvable. The most challenging one moving forward is being proactive.”
Fresh staffing may help address some of VA Montana’s shortfalls. Early last year, the VA inspector general found that while Montana scored high in areas of patient satisfaction and call responsiveness, it ranked near the bottom in employee satisfaction, turnover and patient wait times.
Salary increases have since been offered to registered nurses, bringing their pay in line with the state’s private sector. Employee training is on the rise, and additional hires and the planned expansion of the Missoula clinic are expected to reduce patient wait times.
“We have some great people working for us, and we’re continuing to hire more great folks,” Ginnity said. “We can turn the ship. It’s not easy, but we’re attracting the right talent to be able to do some of those things.”
Ginnity, who addresses veterans with a touch of humor and easiness, is a single father of five children, including two daughters and three boys, one of whom will attend the University of Montana this year to study animation and dance. His other children are joining the U.S. Marine Corps, graduating from Columbia University, and working as a photographer and model.
Ginnity left the Air Force after serving as chief operations officer at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He also deployed to Iraq in 2006 – an experience that helps him connect with the veterans who rely upon the VA for care.
While he envisioned sitting at the foot of a patient’s bed or shaking hands with vets, the new job has kept him busy with administrative duties. He said he understands the skepticism some veterans bring to the VA, but he doesn’t believe the system is unmovable, and patient-centered care is possible.
“The veterans we have are great and will support us all the way, and we need to continue to support them,” he said. “We’ll celebrate successes as we move forward and learn when we come to things like this town hall, and build the best community for folks to come to.”