The new Dayton VA Medical Center director wants to create a “high level of trust” with veterans and increase employee engagement as she takes over leadership of the area hospital.
Jill Dietrich, 37, is the first woman leader of the 150-year-old institution and is one of the youngest in charge of a VA center nationally.
The Indiana native will have oversight of the sprawling hospital campus in Dayton and four clinics in in Richmond, Indiana, and Springfield, Middletown, Lima, treating about 40,000 veterans a year and managing 2,300 employees and a $435 million budget.
“It’s amazing to be the first woman . I never thought I would be in this category. I was just happy to be joining the levels of the senior executive service and coming in to be able to lead a VA medical center,” Dietrich said.
Her arrival in the $163,000-a-year post comes at a time when the former VA national leader David Shulkin said the White House has pushed to privatize the agency, which the Trump administration has denied, and ongoing concerns nationally on hiring enough qualified staff and providing timely patient access to health care.
In her first interview Monday, Dietrich, who arrived from the Long Beach, Calif., VA facility and has worked within the agency for a decade, said she wants to play a big part in providing service to veterans and building relationships with employees.
“Even just walking throughout the halls, people just want me to be visible and want me to be involved as much as possible,” she said. “It starts with transparent communication, making sure that employees know exactly what we’re doing and then also ensuring that they get involved in getting those opportunities to get involved as well.”
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She said she’s committed to “getting out in the community,” also.
Rhonda Risner, director of the labor union National Nurses United at the Dayton VA, which represents about 450 registered nurses, said Dietrich has had a reputation for being “even handed and fair minded” in her tenure at other VA facilities.
The union leader said she hoped the new VA director would push a “just culture,” to let employees bring forward concerns or self-report errors without fear of punitive action.
“She’s committed to transparency and working in partnership with labor,” Risner said. “… She’s got a good place to start and she’s committed to seeing veterans receive the care that they were promised.”
The facility has faced struggles in the past, from a hygiene scandal at a dental clinic to wait times for appointments at a pulmonary clinic, archives show. But improvements have been made, officials said.
On at least two days this month, the Dayton VA scored the highest among 141 VA facilities nationally on access to patient care, according to spokesman Ted Froats. The ranking examined 17 criteria, from patient wait times for primary care appointments, to how quickly employees answered phones.
Dietrich said culture is important.
“I have been to multiple VAs throughout the country and walking into this VA, the culture is almost tangible,” she said. “You can feel how much the employees care and want to do the right thing for the veteran and being in different VAs where that culture may not be as robust, you can tell the difference.”
Paul J. Heinrich, 70, a Vietnam veteran, has sought treatment at the Dayton VA for eight years, most recently for leukemia. He said he doesn’t have personal complaints about the quality of treatment, but medical staff turnover is an issue.
The Miami Twp. resident has dealt with three primary care doctors in five years and three oncologists in three years.
“Turnover is still an issue,” he said. “How they can solve it, I don’t know at this point, but I’m hoping they get that stabilized.”
The VA has been on a nationwide hiring spree, but that has slowed in recent weeks, Dietrich said.
“We have slowed down this year because we hired quite a bit I believe at the beginning of the year,” she said. “It is about right sizing the organization and making sure we are bringing on the right positions at the right time.”
In an interview Monday, former Dayton VA Director Glenn A, Costie said Dietrich has worked at some of the most challenging VA medical facilities in the country and was prepared for the job.
Costie took over the post in 2011 when the facility was dealing with a dental hygiene scandal when a dentist allegedly failed to change gloves between patients. In 2015, a whistle blower employee brought attention to a patient backlog in the pulmonary clinic. The VA reported “patient irregularities” when a prior employee used an informal list to setup appointments.
At the time, 150 patients died before they were seen for medical appointments, but a VA investigation determined none of the patients died because of a lack of care, according to the VA. During his tenure in, Dayton Costie was also brought in as a troubleshooter to deal with patient care issues in Phoenix and Cincinnati.
This newspaper was the first to interview the new Dayton VA Medical Center director. Count on us for in-depth reporting on issues important to veterans.