Elderly AF Veteran Had More Than 100 Ant Bites Before Death

Sen. Johnny Isakson, (D-GA), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Committee, right, lashed out at patients ill-treatment at the Atlanta VAMC. He is shown here meeting with member sof the Air Force in his office. Photo from Isakson’s Twitter feed

ATLANTA—Nine VA employees, including the VISN 7 director and chief medical officer, have been reassigned following reports that an elderly patient at the Atlanta VAMC’s Eagles’ Nest Community Living Center was badly bitten by ants prior to his death from cancer last month.

According to the family of Joel Marrable, an Air Force veteran, the bites were discovered during a visit to his room and were reported to VA staff. It took several complaints, they said, before Marrable was eventually moved to a different room. Marrable’s daughter told a local news station that she found more than 100 ant bites on her father’s body and that the insects were on the walls, ceiling and her father’s bed.

The news immediately sparked outrage on Capitol Hill. Senate VA Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-GA), released a statement blasting Atlanta VA officials. “I am shocked, horrified, and downright maddened by the news that a veteran under the care of VA was treated so poorly and without any regard for his well-being,” Isakson said. “This patient, at the end of his life, was clearly not being monitored closely enough, and I am so sad for his family who had to discover his insect-infested conditions before anything was reportedly done.”

The senator, who is stepping down at the end of the year due to his own health concerns, contacted VA to demand answers, including why the agency had failed to inform Congress of this incident until only hours before the news broke. Isakson assured Marable’s family that “those who allowed these conditions to persist [will] be held accountable to the fullest extent.”

The following week, VA announced the reassignment of nine employees, including the most senior officials in VISN 7. The VISN 7 Director Leslie Wiggins was placed on immediate administrative leave, and VISN 7 Chief Medical Officer Ajay Dhawan, MD, was assigned to duties outside the network pending an investigation. Charleston VAMC Director Scott Isaacks will take over as Acting VISN 7 director.

According to VA, seven other staff members at the Atlanta VAMC were assigned to nonpatient care positions while an administrative investigation board composed of subject matter experts from outside the VISN investigate the issue.

In that same statement, VA announced that it’s also taking action to ensure incidents of this sort are reported to the proper authorities in the future. Those steps include realigning VA’s Office of Network Support, which had been responsible for collecting and disseminating incident reports at VAMCs to VA leadership. According to VA, this move will streamline VA’s adverse action reporting processes by making certain issues are quickly reported from local and regional officials to VHA leaders.

“What happened at Eagles’ Nest was unacceptable, and we want to ensure that veterans and families know that we are determined to restore their trust in the facility,” said VHA Chief Richard Stone. “Transparency and accountability are key principles at VA, and they will guide our efforts in this regard.”

The incident at Eagles’ Nest was the latest in a string of alarming reports emanating from VA hospitals in recent months. In August, a former VA pathologist was charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter after he reportedly mishandled medical reports while intoxicated. According to prosecutors, Robert Levy, the chief of pathology and laboratory medicine for the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks from 2005 through 2018, falsified records and drug tests in order to cover up his on-the-job drinking. His intoxication reportedly led him to potentially misdiagnose thousands of veterans. Prosecutors believe this directly resulted in at least three deaths.

Authorities also are investigating a string of suspicious deaths at the Louis A. Johnson VAMC in Clarksburg, West Virginia, two of which have been ruled homicides. Shortly after that news broke, it was revealed that authorities also are investigating allegations of sexual assault at the Beckley VAMC in Charleston, West Virginia.

Responding to this series of incidents, Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), chairman of the House VA Committee, said, “The shocking reports from West Virginia and Arkansas call into question whether VA is equipped to identify clinicians who are negligent, abusive, or commit criminal acts. This committee will take action … by holding a hearing in the fall to closely examine these disturbing incidents.”