ATLANTA — Three employees at the troubled Atlanta VA Medical Center have been reprimanded, two others have retired and more administrative actions are pending after patient care at the hospital was criticized in federal audits, a top official with the Department of Veterans Affairs told a Senate committee Wednesday.
VA Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel expressed regret for the deaths of four veterans who sought treatment at the hospital and said "aggressive action" is being taken to address the problems at the Atlanta hospital with broad changes also being implemented across what is the largest integrated health care system in the country with nearly 300,000 employees.
"The VA and the Atlanta VA Medical Center takes every veteran death, especially suicide, seriously," Petzel said. "Even one veteran suicide is a national tragedy."
Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson called the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs field hearing to discuss the federal audits released earlier this year detailing allegations of mismanagement and poor patient care within the mental health programs at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, which serves some 87,000 veterans. Federal investigators linked three deaths to the facility, and word of a fourth death later surfaced. Among those who died was a patient with a history of substance abuse and suicidal thoughts who was left alone in a waiting room inside the Atlanta VA Medical Center, where he obtained drugs from a hospital visitor and later died of an overdose.
"When you have a failure and a breakdown in the system that contributes to the loss of life of an American veteran and an American citizen, then it's time to have a call of action, and that's what this is today," said Isakson, a Republican from Marietta.
Petzel said the VA is looking to strengthen and standardize policies across the system for urine tests, hospital visitors and patient escorts, which were concerns raised in the federal audits. And all VA facilities will be hosting a mental health summit this summer.
At the Atlanta hospital, 66 employees have been hired to improve operations within the mental health program. Petzel said VA case managers are being placed at locations with contractors who are helping provide mental health treatment to veterans. He praised the facility's new director for making progress in a short period of time. Petzel said wait times for an appointment after a referral have been reduced to less than 14 days, with the average being seven. He called that among the best within the VA system.
After the hearing, Isakson said he was pleased the VA is taking responsibility for what happened and taking steps to fix the situation at the Atlanta VA hospital.
"I think we're moving forward but there is a long way to go," Isakson said.
A few hundred veterans and others attended the hearing on the campus of Georgia State University. Of those who testified, retired 1st Sgt. Vondell Brown with the Wounded Warrior Project received the loudest applause from the crowd when he criticized the VA for failing to take care of its own as the number of veterans seeking access to health care grows. An estimated 13 percent to 20 percent of the 2.6 million service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Effective mental health care is not only about clinicians, it is also about instilling a culture of good customer service and accountability throughout the system," Brown said, drawing a standing ovation. "I think there is much more to be done here in Atlanta and nationally to close the gap in VA's mental health system."
Brown said one veteran told him he had seen three different psychologists at the VA and the experience of retelling his story further traumatized him. Too often, he said, medicine is being prescribed instead of a focus on therapy.
"The bottom line is we sit here and talk about policies and procedures and talk about what's right and what's wrong, but I think for simple veterans like myself, we really don't care how much you know until we know how much you care," Brown said.