Sherman Howard, a patient at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, said wait times are still an issue at the facility during a Jan. 27 town hall meeting sponsored by the Legion. (Photo by Marty Callaghan)

Veterans say changes still needed at Atlanta VA

The Atlanta VA Medical Center came under scrutiny in April 2013 after three of its mental-health patients committed suicide. The VA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) reported a link between the deaths and management failures on the part of VA staff, as well as an ineffective tracking and monitoring system.

The Legion’s System Worth Saving Task Force is checking back in with the facility to see if the situation there has improved since last spring’s tragic events. The consensus, according to veterans who attended a Legion town hall meeting Monday, is that things are better, but changes still need to be made - particularly an increase in staff and correcting a problem with the phone system.

One veteran, John Smalls, said the Atlanta facility “has made some good changes” but “this VA is not equipped - they need to hire more people.” He suggested Congress provide more funding to the medical center so it can substantially increase staff.

John Hamilton, a veteran of the war in Iraq, said the facility “has its problems, but these problems are nothing compared to what I’ve seen at some of these other VA (hospitals). My counselor is like gold.”

Another veteran, Sherman Howard, highlighted communications and wait-times as two major problems that must be solved. “Veterans are suffering,” he said. “It should be an honor to serve the veterans of this country.”

Several veterans observed that communications between patients and clinicians needs  improvement. They also said the medical center’s phone system leaves much to be desired. “The phone keeps ringing or is out of service,” one veteran said. “No one answered the phone.” Another veteran said he stayed on the VA phone line for an hour before getting cut off.

Greg Kendall, a public affairs officer at the VA facility, said he was the “first one to admit the phone system is the No. 1 complaint that we get on our Facebook page.”

Korean War veteran Walter Lamond praised the Atlanta hospital as “one of the top five in the country and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the top one.” He encouraged any veteran with a health problem from military service to seek out a service officer and report it.

Howard said the VA facility’s new director, Leslie Wiggins, is “trying really hard.” Another veteran said she took over at a very difficult time, about a month after the VAOIG report, “when the hospital was already on suicide watch.”

Mike Noles, service officer for the Legion’s Department of Georgia, praised Wiggins as “absolutely top-notch.” He said she sometimes removes her name tag and walks around the hospital “to see what is going on in the veteran’s world. She is doing a marvelous job in just about every aspect I can think of.”

Wiggins meets with veterans service officers on a monthly basis, Noles said, “And if we’ve got a problem that she can fix without having to go to Washington, she fixes it pretty darn quick.” One project under way is to improve the facility’s phone system; community-based outpatient clinics in the system are also being upgraded.

Veteran-patients there gathered as part of a town hall meeting, which was facilitated by two members of The American Legion’s national staff in Washington: Verna Jones, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, and Ed Lilley, the Legion’s senior national field representative. They are part of the Legion’s System Worth Saving Task Force, which evaluates annually the quality of health care at VA medical centers. The Department of Georgia’s commander, Lynne Rollins, also attended the event, hosted by American Legion Atlanta Post 1.

The town hall meeting preceded a two-day visit by Jones and Lilly to the Atlanta VA Medical Center, to conduct interviews with key administrators, medical staff and patients.

“It doesn’t end here,” Lilley said at the meeting’s conclusion. “We bring your comments, we bring your feedback with us on these (VA medical center) site visits. We’re going to share your concerns with the executive leadership. Some of your concerns, if you ever get the chance to see our System Worth Saving report, will be inside that report.”

Jones told the veterans that “To come in and to listen to your concerns -- to try to help you out -- that’s why we exist, that’s what we do.”