Three days before Donna Hart Gage ’81 was set to start her new job as the Veterans Health Administration’s chief nursing officer, she learned from the evening news that the man who hired her—former Under Secretary for Health Robert A. Petzel, MD—had been fired and that her new employer faced a mounting scandal.
It was June 2014, two months after officials in the Phoenix VA Health Care System had been accused of manipulating waiting lists to hide long patient delays. The allegations had extended to other VA hospitals, and the FBI announced a criminal investigation just three weeks before Gage reported for her first day of work.
“After the scandal broke, everyone kept asking me, Are you really still going to go work there? ‘Are you crazy?’ says Gage. “I said, ‘Yes, but I can’t help them from the outside. I can only give them my best and try to work with them if I’m on the inside.’”
So far, one of her top priorities has been the Advanced Practice Registered Nurse
Initiative. It will allow all advanced practice nurses in VA facilities to work as independent licensed practitioners, even in states that traditionally require physician oversight in matters of diagnosing and treating, and prescribing medication. The initiative “had been sitting there for three years when I got here,” says Gage. “But I have support from the administration, and we are getting ready to put it into the federal registry and move it forward. I’m very pleased about that.”
As chief nurse of the largest healthcare system in the country, Gage says she wants to “bring nursing to the table” during high-level decision-making. “I am beginning to change the culture of having nurses be a part of the team.”
After studying nursing at the college, Gage worked as a clinical nurse at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and then became a nurse manager at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. She worked her way up the administrative ladder there, ultimately serving as chief nursing officer from 2001 through 2011.
“Sometimes there’s a gap created when people move into administrative roles—to know and understand what’s still happening at the bedside,” she says. “I never lost that.”
As for her work with the VA post-scandal, Gage is frank: “I’m trying to learn all that I can about the past, so that going forward we don’t repeat history and things that didn’t work.”