Isakson grills VA leaders at field hearing after Ch. 2 investigation

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ATLANTA - Top Department of Veterans Affairs leaders were on the hot seat Wednesday at a Senate field hearing in Atlanta sparked by an ongoing Channel 2 Investigation.

In April, Channel 2 Action News exposed a federal report that linked patient deaths to mismanagement at Atlanta's VA hospital, and Channel 2 Action News has been following developments ever since.

That report blamed mismanagement by Atlanta VA Medical Center leaders for at least three mental health patient deaths, including two suicides.

The hearing covered a lot of ground, asking questions about what went wrong, what's been done to fix the problems, and the best ways to reduce the risk of similar deaths down the road.

But before setting his sights on the future, it was clear Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, wanted to first reconcile the past.

"It's time to have a call to action," Isakson said as he gave Department of Veterans Affairs top national and local leaders an earful in front of a packed house.

"The failure of the VA system in those cases was, to me, deplorable," Isakson said. "This is not just a VA problem, this is an American problem."

VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel headlined the rare Senate field hearing.

"We expressed our regret of the incidents that have occurred at the VA Atlanta Medical Center and to those family members that have been affected," Petzel said.

Isakson's first question quoted Channel 2 investigative reporter Aaron Diamant's interview with Petzel last week in Washington, D.C. where Diamant asked him, "Who directly will be held accountable?"

"What do you mean by accountability?" Petzel asked back, giving no specifics.

Isakson asked him again.

"How did you hold those responsible for what's been recognized as negligence and mismanagement accountable for their actions?" Isakson asked.

This time, Petzel gave up a bit more.

"First of all, a number people have both corrective and administrative action taken. Two people involved in this process have resigned from, retired from the VA," Petzel said. "We at VA are confident that these initiatives are on the right track and have already improved the safety and quality of care offered to veterans here in Atlanta."

Petzel and the Atlanta VA's new director then ran down a long list of changes made to strengthen patient monitoring, oversight and access to care.

"Are you satisfied with what you saw?" Diamant asked Isakson.

"So far. It's not finished yet," Isakson said.

Both during and after the hearing, Petzel said the law won't let him talk publicly about who specifically has been disciplined over all this, but he has turned that information over to the committee.

Meantime, the mother of another veteran, whose suicide fueled even more congressional outrage, was at Wednesday's hearing.

She told Diamant she's still concerned. She doesn't think things can move fast enough to keep others out of danger.

Diamant first exposed Joseph Petit's death in May. Inside the packed Georgia State ballroom sat a tearful Sandra Petit, Joseph Petit's mother.

In May, Diamant uncovered that Petit's suicide inside the DeKalb County hospital last fall went unnoticed by staff for nearly 24 hours.

"Why was it so important for you to be here today?" Diamant asked Petit.

"No. 1 for my son, Joseph Petit, who was a wonderful son, and I miss him every day," Sandra Petit said.

But after listening to VA leaders promise its mental health system has and will continue to get better and pledge their willingness to consider best practices offered by top local military and medical leaders at the hearing, Petit's concerns remained.

"I don't know that they're going to fix what's broken soon enough to help the ones who need it now," Petit said.

Maybe the most startling figure to come out of the hearing is that at one point, 1 out of every 5 mental health patients who showed up seeking care never got treatment.

While the VA said things have gotten better, Isakson has promised more hearings, saying there will be no second chances.