Moderated by Tom Sabulis
The Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur has come under intense scrutiny from Congress in recent months, after a federal audit linked three patient deaths in the hospital’s mental health unit to pervasive mismanagement. Today, the center’s newly installed director writes about her first steps to rebuild trust on the job. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-GA, writes about the ongling battle to stem military suicides.
Commenting is open.
By Leslie Wiggins
The Atlanta VA Medical Center is one of the fastest-growing VA facilities in the nation, expected to serve close to 90,000 individual veterans this year. I believe we owe every one of these veterans a debt of gratitude and appreciation that we can never adequately repay. As the new medical center director, I will do all that I can to ensure they receive the best care in America.
One of my primary goals is for the Atlanta VA to promote an environment that fosters physical and psychological safety for the veterans we serve, and for the employees who are committed to serving them.
Since taking over as director on May 20, my primary focus has been on strengthening our mental health program. We have made significant progress so far. We have:
• Reduced appointment wait times of 14 days or more by nearly 11 percent.
• Embedded VA-licensed clinical social workers at all contract mental health facilities to improve communications between referring VA clinicians, receiving contract providers and veterans.
• Reduced the number of contract mental health facilities from 26 to 5 to enhance our ability to track and monitor patients receiving care outside the Medical Center.
• Implemented a secure database tracking system for veterans referred to mental health contract providers.
• Strengthened policies governing visitation, patient observation, urine drug screening collection and control of hazardous items at the inpatient mental health unit.
• Developed plans for interactive group sessions and classes individually tailored for inpatients and focused on their recovery.
Veterans can be assured of our ongoing commitment to provide high-quality care. Although the Atlanta VA has faced some recent challenges, I want veterans to know that we are committed to serving them with the level of excellence they deserve.
Soon after my arrival, I also began meeting with many of the stakeholders who partner with the Atlanta VA. To date, I have conducted six town hall meetings with employees, two meetings with Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) and two meetings with my Veterans Advisory Board, which is composed of 25 senior VSO leaders.
Similarly, I have met with U.S. Rep. David Scott on two occasions, and with Reps. John Lewis and Phil Gingrey. I have also addressed the Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. I will continue to engage all of our stakeholders to promote public trust, transparency, participation and collaboration.
I would like to extend my personal appreciation and gratitude to all veterans, and vow to always be a strong advocate for them in the future. On behalf of the Atlanta VA Medical Center, a special thank-you to those who have worn the uniform and dedicated their lives to the cause of freedom.
Leslie Wiggins is director of the Atlanta VA Medical Center.
By Johnny Isakson
Each day, 22 veterans in this country commit suicide; that’s about 8,000 each year. Jaws drop, as they should, when I share this very sad and alarming statistic with others. It is clear that our country has a problem and that we must do a better job caring for our troops and veterans, especially when it comes to mental health care.
I frequently hear from veterans and their family members from across Georgia about the problems they face, from long waits for a VA disability claim decision, to difficulty finding civilian employment, to limited access to quality mental health care. As a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, I know these problems are not confined to just the state of Georgia but exist across the country.
Recent reports from the VA Inspector General have highlighted problems at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. The reports link three suicides to mismanagement at the hospital, and that is both tragic and heartbreaking.
While I believe the VA is committed to addressing this issue, I have asked the VA to take the necessary steps to maximize its resources to prevent more suicides and reverse this alarming trend.
Though the VA and the hospital have responded in some capacity and have taken steps to fix this unacceptable mismanagement, we must be vigilant and follow up thoroughly. We also must know whether similar incidents are happening elsewhere around the country. To that end, I have worked with the committee to schedule an Aug. 7 field hearing in Atlanta to address the issues at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, as well as to discuss how mental health care must be a part of a comprehensive approach to caring for veterans.
I hope this field hearing will not only demonstrate the hospital has executed a plan to address its failures outlined in the Inspector General report, but will expose best practices for providing care to our veterans so we can stem the tide of suicides.
For example, one important part of the solution is community partners. I encourage the VA to continue to work with private mental health providers, service organizations and wounded-warrior groups across the country. When veterans return home, these local partners help the VA better meet the needs of veterans as they transition to civilian life.
One recent report highlighted that several veterans “fell through the cracks” because of a failure to follow through in each case. I am dedicated to ensuring no veteran falls through the cracks when seeking the care that veteran earned.
This hearing is critically important, as we expect to see more than 1 million service members transition from active duty to veteran status in the next few years from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We must see to it that the Department of Veterans Affairs lives up to the promises we have made to our service members and veterans who have shown such bravery in the face of tyranny around the world.
Johnny Isakson, a Republican, represents Georgia in the U.S. Senate.