Improved Mental Healthcare Demanded After Four Deaths at Atlanta VAMC

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By Annette M. Boyle

ATLANTA — Multiple mental health-related deaths at the Atlanta VAMC have led to bipartisan demands from Congress that care and leadership issues be urgently resolved at the facility.

In the wake of a patient death and anonymous tips, the VA’s Office of the Inspector General conducted two audits at the Atlanta VAMC and released the results in April. During the IG investigation, two additional deaths were uncovered.

In response to the audit findings, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, joined members of the Georgia congressional delegation in a tour of the center in early May.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, second left, and Rep. David Scott (D-GA), right, called for changes at the Atlanta VAMC. They are shown here at a site visit with other members of the Georgia congressional delegation. Photo from Facebook site of Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA)

Shortly after the visit, news of a fourth death surfaced, leading Miller to say, “Clearly, the Atlanta VAMC has serious leadership issues that need immediate outside attention from the highest levels of the department.”

While touring the Atlanta VAMC, Miller said he asked whether there were any other deaths to report and was assured there were not. Three days later, the fourth death, which occurred in November 2012, was confirmed.

While the VA IG investigated the suicide of veteran Joseph Petit on Nov. 9, 2012, it noted that the event did not occur during its site visits on July 23-26, 2012, Sept. 26-27, 2012, and Feb. 26-28, 2013, and therefore was not included in the two audits.

Miller said, however, that the failure to disclose this death “shattered” his confidence in the Atlanta VA leadership. Referring to the media coverage of the deaths, he noted in a statement provided to U.S. Medicine, “If this is what it takes for VA leaders to be honest with Congress about what’s happening at their facilities, you can’t help but question how they operate when they think no one is paying attention.”

Outrage over the news of the November death extended to both sides of the political aisle. Rep. David Scott (D-GA), who also participated in the tour of the facility in May, called for the resignations of VAMC officials as well as action by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to clean up the mental health and leadership issues at the Atlanta VAMC.

The VA said that, unrelated to the recent controversies, Leslie Wiggins, currently deputy assistant secretary for labor management relations, would take over as director of the Atlanta VAMC, which has been headed by an interim director since December. Scott said in a statement that he “[looked]forward to meeting with Leslie Wiggins to hear about her plan to right the ship at the Atlanta (VA) Medical Center.” 

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