Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson visited the polytrauma unit at James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa on Tuesday and praised it for what he characterized as "pioneer" work in treating multiple injuries.
At an afternoon news conference, Nicholson commended the hospital staff and said every patient he spoke with marveled at the level of care at Haley.
"Some of the young kids, they might complain a little bit about the food, the toilet paper," Nicholson said, "but the care, it was just unanimous in their adulation and their gratitude."
Tampa's Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center is one of four created in 2005 by Congress. The others are in California, Minnesota and Virginia. They are designed to handle the Iraq war's most seriously injured soldiers.
Nicholson also spoke about criticism of the nearby Bay Pines VA Medical Center. He expressed concern Tuesday about new allegations of mismanagement and poor patient care.
He said he planned to visit the hospital but did not say when.
He also voiced support for hospital leadership, saying management had changed since the last investigations, and that officials were doing a good job, both at Bay Pines and at Haley.
Two weeks ago, the inspector general of the Veterans Affairs Department said investigators would look into the latest allegations, which were contained in an anonymous complaint.
Bay Pines in Seminole is one of the nation's busiest VA hospitals. It was the target of multiple federal inquiries into similar charges of mismanagement in 2004.
"When we get a letter from a veteran that's complimenting a doctor or a nurse for the compassion and the competence, it makes me feel real good," Nicholson told the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times. "When we get these anonymous letters that have particularity in them, it really does concern me."
The complaint, obtained by the Times, charged that the "corruption and incompetence that exists in the management of the VA Medical Center in Bay Pines continues and has actually gotten worse."
Bay Pines officials said the letter is wrong.
Nicholson did not visit Bay Pines but said he would return.
At Haley and at the editorial board meeting, Nicholson was joined by Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores.
Young said he had not commented on the new Bay Pines investigation because it was sparked by an anonymous complaint. He said the investigations in 2004 were prompted by a flawed computer system at the hospital.
He also said veterans do not like it when Bay Pines is cast in a negative light.
"If you want to get a fight, you tell them that Bay Pines is a terrible place to go for their medical care . . . because the veteran believes in Bay Pines," Young said. "They think that this is the greatest medical facility anywhere in the world."
Nicholson also addressed an oft-cited complaint at Bay Pines about the way management runs VA hospitals.
To get ahead, critics said, staff members must belong to the right clique. At Bay Pines, some doctors complain that management does not listen to them and that if they speak out, they endanger their careers.
Nicholson said it is crucial to provide "a valve" for the staff to air complaints but also pointed out that like any large organization, politics come into play.
He said doctors with specialties "don't like intrusion from management, and sometimes you'll have people who act out . . ."
"So," Nicholson said, "we have to figure out a way to lead that, to manage that in a way to keep them moving forward with the whole organization - and those are challenges."