ATLANTA (AP) — One patient with a history of substance abuse and suicidal thoughts 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.
Another patient wandered the 26-acre campus for hours, picking up his prescriptions from an outpatient pharmacy and injecting himself with testosterone before returning voluntarily to his room.
The cases at the Atlanta VA Medical Center are the latest in a string of problems at Veterans Affairs facilities nationwide, prompting outrage from elected officials and congressional scrutiny of what is the largest integrated health care system in the country with nearly 300,000 employees.
"It's not just Atlanta. There are issues throughout the United States," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chair of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, who noted there are many hard-working employees within the VA but feels legislation is needed to reform operations nationwide.
In recent years, there have been inquiries into the Pittsburgh VA system after five people died of Legionnaire's disease and the Buffalo, N.Y., VA hospital, where at least 18 veterans have tested positive for hepatitis. There have also been whistleblower complaints ranging from improper sterilization procedures to radiology tests left unread at a VA facility in Jackson, Miss.
Meanwhile, the need continues to grow: In just the area of mental health, 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. In fiscal year 2011, the VA served nearly 6.1 million patients at its 152 medical centers.
At the Atlanta VA Medical Center, two reports issued in mid-April by the Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General detailed allegations of mismanagement and poor patient care linked to three deaths. The case of a fourth veteran was a turning point for Miller: A man in a wheelchair came to the Atlanta VA emergency room complaining of hearing voices but was not admitted and later found in a locked hospital bathroom dead of an apparent suicide.
Officials at the Atlanta VA Medical Center said they had already taken steps to address the issues cited in the reports, which included requiring visitors to be supervised and closer patient monitoring. The facility serves some 87,000 veterans with an operating budget of more $500 million.
The interim director has been replaced, and a former deputy assistant secretary, Leslie B. Wiggins, has been brought in to take over.
"One of my primary goals is to ensure Atlanta has an environment that fosters physical and psychological safety," Wiggins said during a May 20 news conference.
Rep. David Scott, a Georgia Democrat whose district is served by the center, met with Wiggins and said he was impressed with her experience and hopeful changes would be made.