Deaths spur reprimands at Atlanta VA

The Atlanta VA Medical Center reprimanded two employees and recommended reprimands for two more, as of mid-June, in response to devastating federal audits linking three patient deaths to pervasive mismanagement of the hospital’s mental health unit.

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ response to a U.S. House committee is the first window into the disciplinary response to a pair of April audits of the Decatur hospital. A new director, Leslie Wiggins, was installed last month, but the results of her initial 30-day review have not yet been made public.

The reprimands were detailed in a June 11 response to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Two unnamed employees were reprimanded April 25, and the department proposed another reprimand May 9 and a fourth May 30, but the latter two have not been finalized. A reprimand can appear in an employee’s file for up to three years, but can be destroyed after six months depending on the employee’s behavior.

House VA Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the reprimands represent an insufficient response.

“This is not only a slap in the face to the families of the veterans who died, but a disturbing example of VA’s well-documented accountability problem,” Miller said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general revealed the deaths of three veterans linked to inadequate oversight in the hospital’s mental health unit. The audits showed that many of the 4,000 veterans the hospital referred to outside mental health facilities “fell through the cracks.”

Inspectors found that a man died of an apparent drug overdose after providers failed to connect him with a psychiatrist. In another case, hospital staff told a man who tried to see a VA psychiatrist who wasn’t available to take public transportation to the emergency department. He never went and committed suicide the next day. A third patient died of an overdose of drugs given to him by another patient.

A fourth death later came to light after Miller and four Georgia congressmen toured the troubled facility in May. Last fall, a 42-year-old Army veteran taking drugs to treat depression and anxiety locked himself inside a hospital bathroom and committed suicide after being discharged by hospital staff. The 405-bed hospital serves about 90,000 veterans and is the largest such facility in the Southeast.

Several members of Congress, including Marietta Republican Phil Gingrey, have called for firings at the VA.

“The VA calls this an ‘appropriate action’ in response? I’m certain the patients’ families don’t feel the same,” Gingrey said. “Those responsible must be fired, not simply reassigned. Period. End of story.”

Atlanta Democratic U.S. Rep. David Scott, who has toured the facility and been critical of its management, urged caution as Wiggins gets settled in.

“The front-line employees deserve a professional workplace and not (one) where complaints are swept under the rug and negligent supervisors are allowed to stay on the job,” Scott said in a statement. “Atlanta veterans deserve to know that their concerns about the level of service have been heard. These concerns need to be heard loud and clear and I hope there are more than a couple of reprimands coming out of Director Wiggins’ 30-day review period.”

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