When the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs needed someone to step into the epicenter of a scandal that has badly shaken the agency, it turned to Lisa Freeman.
As director of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, Freeman has earned a reputation as a hands-on problem-solver. And that was exactly the sort of executive needed to temporarily shepherd the reeling Arizona-based VA Southwest Health Care Network, where allegations first surfaced of secret wait lists for veteran care that have outraged the country.
Now Freeman, who prefers to work behind the scenes rather than stand in front of microphones, finds herself squarely in the spotlight -- and some of that glare has been harsh.
Amid intense scrutiny of all VA facilities, a government watchdog group recently cited a claim that Palo Alto supervisors had retaliated against a whistle-blower. Members of Arizona's congressional delegation responded by urging the VA to look into the charge.
Freeman is confident any inquiry will show that she has done nothing improper. But she's also frustrated that it is distracting from her goal of helping the VA regain veterans' trust.
"What's been hardest is that I don't want any veteran losing confidence in the Palo Alto Heath Care System or the VA in general because of anything that's said about me," Freeman said by phone from Arizona. "I also don't want employees in Palo Alto or here to lose faith in the fine work that they do. This is not about me."
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, said that attitude is why the VA has tapped the right person to steady a regional network that includes the Phoenix system, where reports of veterans dying while waiting for care as workers falsified appointment records set in motion a national crisis.
"She is a gifted leader, and it says something about her that she has been sent to clean up one of the worst scandals and messes in VA history," Eshoo said.
Freeman took over the vacant post on July 7 at the request of Janet Murphy, the VA's acting deputy undersecretary for health for operations and management. She is overseeing far-flung VA operations in Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas for four months because of her "sound leadership qualities and broad experience," Murphy said in a statement.
"The primary focus absolutely is stability in Phoenix, but there are plenty of issues that need attending to throughout the rest of the network," Freeman added.
While progress has made in getting vets their medical appointments there, advocacy groups are urging VA leaders to forcefully address the root causes of what has been described as a culture of deceit that took hold in Phoenix. And new VA Secretary Robert McDonald is visiting the hospital Friday, one day after President Barack Obama signed a bipartisan, $16.3 billion bill to improve veteran care in the wake of the scandal.
Freeman, 53, joined the VA after graduating from Notre Dame with a civil engineering degree. As a project manager, she took pride in modernizing a Muskogee, Okla., center where her grandfather, a World War II vet, had passed away.
She came to Palo Alto in 1995 and has been director since 2001. But even after two decades with the VA, she gained a greater appreciation for the mission in 2004 when Palo Alto was designated a polytrauma rehabilitation center. Patients included some of the most grievously wounded from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and she made it a point to meet each one and their families.
Today, the Palo Alto system has about 4,000 employees at three inpatient facilities and seven clinics across Northern California and stretching into the Central Valley, treating 67,000 patients in 2013. Affiliated with the Stanford University School of Medicine, Palo Alto is the VA's second-largest research facility -- behind only the San Francisco VA.
The system also is in the middle of a massive makeover, with $2.1 billion in new construction and renovations expected by 2020.
"There have been marked accomplishments under her leadership, but she doesn't want accolades," Eshoo added. "There's a real sense of humility about her. She's the kind of person who puts her shoulder to the wheel. Having said that, is everything perfect under her watch? Of course not, and she would be the first one to say that."
Lori Bess, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local 2110, which represents 3,700 workers, said it's "not all roses and candy" at Palo Alto. But Bess said Freeman and employees are in lockstep when it comes to providing the best care possible for vets. She also has found Freeman is sincere about a "no fear" policy -- employees shouldn't fear pointing out problems.
When a VA audit in June flagged a worker's concern about appointment scheduling at the Livermore medical facility, Bess said Freeman quickly investigated. The union and Freeman agreed it was a misunderstanding that could be corrected by better training.
"Lisa made it clear that she wasn't there to blame anyone, but rather fix the problem," Bess said.
In early July, Eshoo and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, held a town hall to hear veterans' concerns. While disappointed to hear individual complaints about care, Eshoo said she was heartened that none indicated systemic problems at Palo Alto.
Speier, though, said that her office is looking into "three or four" whistle-blower claims.
"I think there was cooking of the books there, as there has been at other VA facilities around the country," Speier said. "But as to what extent that occurred, I don't know. I do think that they do a good job. But I'm also not prepared to say that they are the crown jewel of the VA. The jury is still out on that."
Last month, the independent Project on Government Oversight released a national report based on complaints from nearly 800 current and past VA employees. Among them was a Palo Alto pharmacy supervisor who said he was punished after alerting superiors to medication errors and delays.
The report took no position on the claim's validity. But it concluded that purported attempts to quiet the employee "and the expansion of Freeman's responsibilities seem directly at odds" with the VA's policy of whistle-blower protection.
Freeman said she cannot discuss a personnel matter, but understands legislators' concerns.
"The Arizona delegation doesn't know me and wants to be reassured that the person who has been chosen to lead the network is not retaliating against a whistle-blower," she said.
Freeman, who also has been dealing with her mother-in-law's recent death, said she is not a candidate for the permanent post. She is looking forward to returning to Palo Alto.
"But," she added, "I will go where the VA asks me to go."
Follow Mark Emmons at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.
Director of VA Palo Alto Health Care System
Interim position: Acting director of VA Southwest Health Care Network, consisting of seven facilities in Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas.
Residence: Menlo Park
Hometown: Tulsa, Oklahoma
Family: Married, no children
Education: Bachelor's degree from Notre Dame, MBA from Louisiana Tech
Career: Started with the VA out of college in 1983. Arrived at Palo Alto in 1995 and became director in 2001.