Ed Kois: The Manchester VAMC whistleblower who changed everything

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Dr. William “Ed” Kois in his office in the Manchester VA Medical Center in March 2019. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – Two weeks ago, Congressman Chris Pappas of New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District attended a town hall at the Manchester Veterans Medical Center, where Dr. William “Ed” Kois was the head of the Spinal Cord Clinic. Through his honesty and courage, Dr. Kois became one of the most significant whistleblowers in the history of the Veterans Administration. 

When Chris saw me sitting waiting for the town hall to start, he asked me, “How are things going here, Jon?” and I said things were positive. I know our Congressman – who doesn’t know Chris, as he’s that type of person, who knows everybody and everybody knows and likes and respects him – so I said, “And you know, being positive isn’t something normal for me.

Chris was happy to hear about the good climate at the VA created in the wake of the revelations of Ed Kois, and I was happy to tell him. I met and interviewed Ed earlier this year. It was really a privilege to meet him, and I told him after the interview how much he meant to me and other veterans who use the Manchester VAMC. 

The atmosphere of the July 8 town hall Chris and I attended was vastly different than the first one held under then-acting Director Alfred Montoya Jr. two years ago. Known as “Al” by staff and the veterans who use the Manchester VAMC, the director had a close relationship to Dr. Kois. 

Sixty-two year-old Ed Kois, a graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School, was a physiatrist, that is, a doctor who specializes in the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. With a practice in Nashua, Kois was affiliated with Southern New Hampshire Medical Center, and has been practicing at the Manchester VAMC since 2012.

Al jokes to me that when he first met me, he thought I was going to hit him with my cane. If Mike Lopez, Manchester’s “Mr. Veteran” hadn’t been sitting next to me, I just might have. After talking to Chris, Al said “Hi,” and we joked about my new back brace that I had just picked up from the Urgent Care Department. 

Al Montoya was brought in after the scandal triggered by the Boston Globe Spotlight Team stories, based on revelations of Dr. Kois and other whistleblowers. Ed became the face of the whistleblowers, as he – well, he had that face. Like a leprechaun. He was an easy man to make.

Like I said, Director Montoya is known as “Al” by staff and the vets, he was close to Ed Kois. Al is close to all of us.

When I interviewed him, Ed praised Al for all he had done to change the culture at the Manchester VAMC. He didn’t think it could be done, but Al did it.

Upon hearing of the death of Ed Kois, Manchester VAMC users and staff – like myself – must have experienced shock and sadness. It hit me very hard. And then – like me – they must have felt sad for Al. I thought of his sadness, thinking of the loss of Dr. Ed Kois, the whistleblower who changed everything because of his ally and friend the director, and the director who changed everything because of his ally and friend, the whistleblower. 

As a member of the House Veterans Committee, Chris Pappas serves as Chairman of the Subcommittee Chairman of Oversight and Investigations. At a hearing called “Learning from Whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Congressman Pappas paid tribute to Dr. Kois on June 25, 2019:

“Let me be clear.  As this Subcommittee’s Chairman, I will fight for the rights of whistleblowers. The work of the VA is too important to ignore those pointing out missteps and misdeeds.

“I also want to say that there are some examples of VA eventually successfully listening to whistleblowers without retaliating against them.  At the Manchester VA Medical Center in my district, Dr. Ed Kois and his colleagues saw serious health problems threatening the health of veterans. 

“At first, he went to his supervisors.  But Dr. Kois was ignored.  He continued pressing these issues to higher and higher authorities within VA.  He was still ignored.  Finally, he went to the Boston Globe’s investigative journalism team and to Congress, and finally, VA took his allegations seriously and began working to address the patient safety and quality of care concerns that Dr. Kois and his colleagues identified.

“The good news is that Dr. Kois says he has NOT experienced retaliation as a result of speaking out.

“I urge VA to follow the path of New Hampshire’s example when other whistleblowers voice their concerns.”