by: Scott MacFarlane Updated:
WASHINGTON - The scandal at the Atlanta VA Medical Center is inspiring a proposal for sweeping new federal law that would provide stricter rules for how the VA handles veterans with mental health issues.
The chairman of a powerful U.S. House committee told his colleagues Tuesday, Atlanta's problems warrant sweeping new laws.
"The Atlanta story is just the latest in a tragic series of incidents highlighting serious systematic problems plaguing the provision of mental health care to at-risk veterans," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Miller publicly debated new veterans' mental health law Tuesday which would require the government to keep closer tabs on vets with mental health issues, keep better track of their appointments and even their medication. It would also require VA to contract with civilian mental health providers to treat veterans.
Mismanagement inside the mental health ward at the VA Medical Center in DeKalb County has been linked to four deaths and other ugly incidents, which include a schizophrenic patient roaming free in the building and a mental health patient injecting himself with testosterone.
The VA has promised to fix the problems but some of the members of Congress who toured the Atlanta VA Center two weeks ago told MacFarlane they're not confident all the fixes have been made.
Robert Jesse, principal deputy undersecretary for health at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, wouldn't talk about whether new law is needed in front of the congressional panel, said he didn't have enough time to review the proposal.
MacFarlane tracked him down afterward, and Jesse said new law is unnecessary.
"We've got new leadership going into Atlanta, extremely talented, and I expect great things to come of it," Jesse said.
"Do you believe there are still mental health issues that need to be resolved there?" MacFarlane asked.
"There are mental health issues that need to be resolved everywhere," Jesse said.
Monday, the Atlanta VA Medical Center's new director, Leslie Wiggins, laid out her plans to get the troubled hospital back on track.
Wiggins said Monday she's still going through the reports and said that it was still too soon to say whether anyone will lose their jobs. She admits the expectations for her are high.
"I recognize the scrutiny and the weight that the world is putting on me, but I'm most concerned about what the veterans expect of me. I'll be spending my time making sure this environment is safe and secure and the veterans can count on me to do that," Wiggins said.
Wiggins also promised whatever changes she makes will be done transparently.