Mental health director makes changes at Atlanta VA Medical Center

by: Aaron Diamant Updated:


DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - For the last six weeks, Channel 2 Action News has been working to get a response from leaders from the Department of Veterans Affairs to sit down with us one-on-one to talk about how things got so bad inside the Atlanta VA Medical Center and who will be held accountable.

Channel 2 Action News first reported in April about the problems inside the Atlanta VA that an audit said led to at least four patient deaths, including two suicides that have been linked to mismanagement.

Tuesday, the department finally agreed to answer some of our questions. Channel 2 investigative reporter Aaron Diamant sat down with Dr. Karen Drexler, the Atlanta VA Medical Center's new chief of mental health.

Drexler was ordered to take over two weeks after Channel 2 Action News first uncovered federal inspection reports that blamed mismanagement by hospital leaders for three mental health patient deaths.

"How did we get to that point?" Diamant asked Drexler.

"Aaron, you're asking me about something that happened before I was in this position, so I don't really feel like I can answer that question," Drexler said.

Still, Diamant pushed Drexler, who's been on staff at the VA for 19 years, to explain the poor patient monitoring and weak security controls that inspectors found had affected patient care and had powerful Georgia congressmen calling for hearings.

"What would you tell them?" Diamant asked about answering to those lawmakers.

"I would say there were challenges with communication that we're working on improving," Drexler said.

Then Drexler described a mental health system pushed beyond its limits.

"Sometimes, the demand has outstripped our capacity to provide care, and that's presented some challenges," Drexler said.

Diamant asked Drexler if people will lose their jobs over the issues that have been uncovered at the hospital.

"If there are individuals who did not do what they needed to do, appropriate steps will be taken," Drexler said.

Meantime, Drexler said her focus is on fixing the system.

"So who should be held accountable?" Diamant asked Drexler.

"We should all be held accountable for what we have responsibility for," Drexler said.

Drexler made it clear to Diamant that her focus is on fixing a broken system.

"All of this attention has been very helpful to get us to accelerate the pace of that."

"That's very troubling, don't you think, that it took patients dying before the system got fixed?" Diamant asked Drexler.

"Every death is tragic and our hearts go out to the families. We take every single death very seriously," Drexler responded.

Drexler told Diamant the Atlanta VA is now making a strong push to expand the mental health system, opening new clinics and hiring more people, plus building stronger partnerships with outside providers to keep patients from falling through the cracks.

"I think we are doing a much better job now that we have more boots on the ground of social workers who can help coordinate that care," Drexler said.

Drexler also said the VA is rolling out a better electronic medical record system that raises red flags, has ramped up staff training, and is putting in place new protocols to address all of the problems the inspector general found.

"We're confident that our care is much improved because of it," Drexler said.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives formally started discussing the scandal at the Atlanta VA Medical Center late Tuesday afternoon.

One congressman told his colleagues that local military vets have been "falling through the cracks."

Channel 2's Scott MacFarlane heard from another Georgia congressman who formally proposed large pay cuts for Veterans Affairs administrators nationwide.

"I rise today to talk about the tragic events at the Atlanta VA Medical Center," Rep. Phil Gingrey said in a speech on the U.S House floor Tuesday, more than a month after Channel 2 Action News learned about the scandal inside the VA hospital in DeKalb County.  Gingrey specifically referenced the media coverage in his speech on the U.S. House floor.

Four patient deaths, including two suicides, have been linked to mismanagement at the hospital.

Congress is considering changing federal law to overhaul the veterans agency.

Georgia Republican Jack Kingston formally proposed cutting the pay of many VA executives 25 percent Tuesday for as long as vets are forced to endure long waits to get their claims processed.

"Frankly, that's a moderate step. What the private sector would do is fire the whole leadership team. We're saying reduce the backlog by 40 percent or you're going to take a 25 percent pay cut," Kingston said.

Gingrey, who met in recent days with Leslie Wiggins, the new administrator of the Atlanta VA Medical Center, told MacFarlane he's asking for more discipline, including possible firings of staff or managers at Atlanta's VA.

"If in their investigation they found one or multiple people who are not doing their jobs and as a result deaths have occurred … these people would be fired and she assured me they would," Gingrey said.

A Pennsylvania congressman formally introduced a ban on bonus pay for VA executives.

Channel 2 Action News has unearthed five-figure bonuses given to local VA executives, even as the recent scandal was unfolding.

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