July 11, 2013

Atlanta VA director: Changes underway after audit

By JAIME HENRY-WHITE, Associated Press

ATLANTA — The Atlanta VA Medical Center has begun tracking mental health patients referred to outside facilities and taken other steps to address problems outlined by federal auditors earlier this year, the hospital’s new director said Thursday.

Among other things, the center plans to place VA-licensed social workers at contracted facilities, Director Leslie Wiggins said.

Wiggins, who previously was VA center’s deputy assistant secretary, met with reporters to explain how the facility is increasing accountability and transparency following allegations of mismanagement and poor patient care in connection with three deaths at the Atlanta facility.

An Inspector General’s audit in mid-April said one patient in need of mental health care had committed suicide and two others who needed care died of drug overdoses.

Another death recently came to light from last year. A veteran being treated for depression and anxiety committed suicide after being discharged.

“Veterans can be assured of our ongoing commitment to provide high-quality care,” Wiggins said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General reported in April that the facility struggled with poor patient safety, inadequate patient monitoring and unsatisfactory policies for dealing with contraband, drug tests and visitation. Investigators connected additional deaths with the center’s lack of patient follow-through in its mental health referral program.

“What we are doing now is very carefully making sure that we have put in place enough of those standards,” Wiggins said. “We are paying a lot of attention to what was pointed out to us by the external bodies.”

Federal officials told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs last month that two unnamed employees at the Atlanta facility were reprimanded on April 25 as a result of the critical audit reports. Wiggins said she couldn’t comment on any disciplinary matters.

Wiggins said the medical center, which provides care to nearly 89,000 veterans, has hired 17 new mental health staffers, reduced patient wait times and improved access for veterans seeking mental health services. The hospital’s long-term plan involves expanding mental health outpatient services at its Fort McPherson facility later this summer and opening a new outpatient clinic with mental health services in Oakwood, Ga., in early September.

Also on Thursday, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, released a letter to President Barack Obama calling for his help in addressing patient-care issues at VA medical centers nationwide.

“Unfortunately, department officials seem more intent on issuing bureaucratic slaps on the wrist than the sort of serious punishments required to send a message that substandard care for veterans will not be tolerated,” the Republican congressman said in the statement.

In June, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson asked the Senate VA Committee to hold a field hearing in Atlanta in August to address the two federal audits.