The new head of the Atlanta VA Medical Center said Monday it’s too soon to say whether any top managers will be fired following scathing federal reports of widespread mismanagement linked to the deaths of three veterans.
Newly-appointed Director Leslie Wiggins said she plans to spend her first 30 days reviewing recent reports by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Inspector General, which revealed that hospital staff failed to keep track of thousands of mental health patients who “fell through the cracks.”
Wiggins called the deaths of three veterans detailed in those reports “shocking” and “very sad” and said she plans to shore up systems and processes at the hospital to prevent such tragedies in the future.
“I’m the new leader; I’ll take responsibility,” she said at a news conference on her first day in charge. “I don’t take this assignment lightly at all.”
The 405-bed hospital in Decatur serves about 90,000 veterans and is the largest such facility in the Southeast.
It’s up to Wiggins now to turn the facility around and regain the trust of the veterans it serves, Congressman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement. Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and four Georgia congressmen recently toured the troubled hospital in response to the two federal audits of the facility’s mental health unit.
The reports revealed that one veteran died of an apparent drug overdose after providers failed to connect him with a psychiatrist. In another incident, hospital staff told a man who tried to see a VA psychiatrist who wasn’t available to take public transportation to an emergency department. He never went and killed himself the next day.
A separate report from the Joint Commission, a national health care accreditation organization, detailed dozens of problems in other areas of the hospital, including powerful prescription narcotics left unsecured and medical equipment that had not been properly cleaned.
Miller said his confidence in the hospital’s leaders was “shattered” after learning that they failed to reveal at the time of his visit the death of another Georgia veteran, who committed suicide in a hospital bathroom last fall, an incident not included in the audits.
“We look forward to hearing about the results of Wiggins’ 30-day review and stand ready to help her reestablish within the facility a climate of transparency, strong leadership and accountability — qualities that have been non-existent at the center as of late,” he said.
Elijah Williams, local union president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said he believes leaders at the top caused many of the hospital’s problems and that employees have been afraid to speak out.
“We need to see action (from Wiggins),” Williams said.
The biggest change needed is putting a stable leader in place, Wiggins said, “and I’m here.”
An interim director had been in charge of the facility since former head James Clark retired in December. A VA spokeswoman said Wiggins’ appointment was already in the works and was not in response to the recent audits.
Wiggins joined the VA two decades ago. Most recently she was deputy assistant secretary for labor management relations. She said her background as a nurse and experience in quality management will be a benefit in her new role.
Wiggins said one of her immediate priorities is to begin improving communication with the public.
“I’m committed to making all changes that I do here … as public as I can,” she said.
Georgia Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat, said he met with Wiggins last week, is impressed with her experience and supports her efforts. Earlier this month, Scott called for the resignations of top hospital leaders and for the White House to get involved after he toured the facility.
“(Wiggins) has a lot of problems and culture issues to address,” he said. “She needs full support from community stakeholders to make these changes.”
Current position: Director, Atlanta VA Medical Center
Former job: Deputy Assistant Secretary for Labor Management Relations for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Career: Joined the VA in 1993; Has served in a number of roles, including nurse executive, medical center quality manager and as medical center associate director at the Detroit VA Medical Center.
Education: Bachelor’s degrees from Ohio State University and Indiana University; Master’s degree from Indiana Wesleyan University
Personal: Cleveland native, two sons