Improvements under way at Atlanta VA hospital
8/8/2014, 6 a.m.
Atlanta VA Director Leslie Wiggins says things are on the mend at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Clairmont Road in Decatur.
The hospital was swept up in the national scandal over the deaths of three mental patients and long waits for veterans to get treatment, but Wiggins, who came on board in June 2013, says the facility is solving many of its problems.
“We’ve overcome a lot of concerns and a lot of problems,” she said. “It has all come with the support from the national level.”
After 14 months on the job, Wiggins said improvements in the national VA system are filtering down to the local level, resulting in better care of veterans.
Wiggins, who spoke to about 70 community leaders and residents at Commissioner Stan Watson’s Aug. 2 Community Cabinet meeting, said she is not afraid of the hot seat.
“I can take the heat because the veterans took a lot more for my freedom,” she said.
A national investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General found that in the six months between Oct. 1, 2013, and March 31, 2014, vets waited 56.5 days for care at the Atlanta VA hospital. That was the third-longest wait in the nation. Atlanta tied with Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va., for that spot. Nashville, Tenn., had the longest wait time of 65 days for new patients.
Federal inspectors said the three deaths occurred at the Atlanta VA over the past two years when the center lost track of mental health patients it referred to a contractor.
The inspectors say the VA hospital did not keep a close enough eye on those under its own care.
Wiggins said they are hiring more medical personnel to monitor patients and reduce wait times, which are dropping.
“We’re expanding hours and adding Saturday clinics and evening clinics in addition to hiring additional practitioners,” she said. “We’re also using our community partners to see veterans when we can’t see them in a timely manner.”
Wiggins said the partners include Emory doctors, doctors at community centers, and those who have the capacity in their systems.
Congress passed sweeping legislation on July 29 to overhaul the Veterans Affairs Department.
The bill calls for $16.3 billion in spending to expand community health care options for veterans who face long wait times and commutes; hire more doctors, nurses and other health care workers; and improve accountability by giving newly confirmed VA Secretary Robert McDonald the authority to fire senior executives for mismanagement.
President Barack Obama was scheduled to sign the legislation on Aug. 7.
Wiggins said Atlanta’s VA Medical Center, one of the fastest-growing in the country, will benefit from the reforms.
“They break that money down based on the needs and location of veterans,” Wiggins said.
In 2013, she said the Atlanta VA hospital at 1670 Clairmont Road saw more than 90,000 veterans.
“I had over 1.5 million appointments to see them,” she said. “So that speaks to the size and magnitude of our need here.”
Wiggins said her biggest challenge may be rebuilding public confidence and maintaining staff morale.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating, but mostly it causes us to pull together as a team,” she said. “We have a strong mission. The mission keeps me focused – I know who I’m doing it for.”