Associated Press Writer
ATLANTA — A Georgia congressman called for Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to step down Thursday over lingering concerns about oversight at Atlanta’s VA Medical Center.
U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) said four soldier deaths associated with Atlanta’s VA Medical Center should serve as a warning, and that the Department of Veterans Affairs is in need of a change in leadership. Scott represents Georgia’s 13th Congressional District, which spans Cobb, Clayton, Douglas, Fulton, Henry, and DeKalb counties.
An April audit by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General found that a patient in need of mental health care committed suicide, and two others who needed care died of drug overdoses. Another veteran who was being treated for depression and anxiety committed suicide after being discharged in 2012.
The audit also found that the facility struggled with poor oversight of patient safety, inadequate monitoring and had subpar policies for dealing with contraband, drug tests and visitation. Investigators linked patient deaths with the facility’s apparent lack of follow-up communication with mental health patients who were referred to other service providers.
“And not yet, not one time, has the secretary seen fit to even set foot — to come down there and see about that situation. That’s symbolic,” Scott said Thursday.
In a statement, a VA spokeswoman said the department will do all that it can to ensure veterans are getting the best care possible.
“We have made progress to better serve veterans today and to transform the department for the future, but there is more work to do,” the statement said.
VA officials did not answer whether Shinseki, a retired U.S. Army general, has visited the Atlanta Veterans Medical Center since the concerns surfaced.
The department appointed a new director, Leslie Wiggins, in May. Scott said she’s qualified and he has high hopes for her tenure there, but no one has been fired from the center over the soldiers’ deaths.
“If she doesn’t have the capacity and the authority to fire people and run people, then she’s nothing more than a scapegoat down there — and that concerns me,” the congressman said. “We have a motto, ‘leaving no soldiers behind.’ These soldiers who committed suicide both directly and indirectly — because of the mismanagement at this hospital — have been left behind because nobody has been held accountable for their suicides, which were preventable,” Scott said.
The Atlanta VA Medical Center has started tracking mental health patients who are being referred to outside agencies, and the facility is taking other steps to improve oversight of its almost 89,000 patients, Wiggins said at a press conference last week.
Seventeen new mental health workers have been hired, patient wait times have been reduced and officials have worked to improve access to mental health services, Wiggins said.
A long-term plan calls for the Atlanta VA Medical Center to expand mental health outpatient service at a location in Fort McPherson, and to open another outpatient clinic offering mental health services in September.