Gazette opinion: VA Montana’s revolving director’s door

Billings Gazette

by Gazette Editorial Board

Within a few weeks, VA Montana will have no permanent director, deputy director or chief of medical staff. The leadership vacuum coincides with continued vacancies in front-line staff, unacceptable waits for veterans’ care and ongoing complaints of low employee morale.


Johnny Ginnity announced last week that he is resigning effective July 1, after just more than a year in the director’s job. He had been acting director for more than a year after the previous director left under a cloud. She also had a brief tenure.

It’s unclear why Ginnity, a veteran and long-time VA employee, resigned. His resignation became public knowledge the day before an administrative judge held a hearing in Helena on a former VA employee’s allegations that a senior VA Montana supervisor retaliated against her for reporting a safety violation in the Fort Harrison operating room in 2014.

Separately, the VA Inspector General is investigating issues with long appointment wait times in Montana, according to Sen. Jon Tester, a member of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as of June 1, there were 21,321 health care appointments in the VA Montana system. Those include 17,908 scheduled within 30 days and 3,413 that will keep veterans waiting more than 30 days.

The Billings VA outreach clinic had nearly 1,000 appointments scheduled more than 30 days out. That’s 21.39 percent of all scheduled Billings appointments.

This is not the standard of care that Montana veterans deserve.

Waiting times in Montana tend to be closely linked to staff vacancies. Loss of even one doctor or delay in recruiting can significantly increase wait times. As The Gazette has reported previously, there are continuing vacancies, especially for mental health professionals.

Having heard rumors that Ginnity would resign, Tester confronted VA Secretary Bob McDonald the day before it became news across the state. McDonald told Tester the department’s goal is to name Ginnity’s successor within four months.

Tester said that would be an acceptable timeframe, and he will hold VA accountable for meeting it.

“We can’t wait 13 months like last time,” Tester said.

McDonald is working on leadership succession planning for situations such as the Montana director’s resignation. There is no such plan yet.

Requirements for leadership succession planning are included in the Veterans First Act, which passed the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee with bipartisan support in April. But that legislation hasn’t been brought to the full Senate for a vote.

“Employee morale is low, it was low when he (Ginnity) got there, it hasn’t improved,” Tester said. “The issues that were there when he came on board haven’t been fixed.”

As Tester said, employees are the VA’s biggest asset. They must be held accountable and they must be rewarded when they do good work.

The VA’s regional leader, VISN Network Director Ralph T. Gigliotti, based in Denver, now is responsible for filling the Montana vacancy. He must recruit a leader who is experienced in health care administration, a hard worker with a proven record of success in inspiring staff to excel. More than anything, VA Montana needs a leader who will be completely dedicated to providing the highest quality care to our veterans.

It’s harder for front-line staff to do their jobs well when top leadership is in flux — or worse — in turmoil. VA Montana needs a leader who can energetically rebuild staff trust and empower them to fulfill their sacred duty of caring for America’s heroes.