Posted: 6:50 p.m. Monday, May 6, 2013

Ga. delegation tours Atlanta VA hospital after investigation

Ch. 2 investigation exposed patient deaths, mismanagement inside hospital

By Aaron Diamant and Scott MacFarlane

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. —

Channel 2 Action News was the only station there as powerful lawmakers traveled from Washington, D.C., to the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in DeKalb County to demand answers after a weeks-long investigation found reports blaming mismanagement by hospital leaders for three patient suicides and exposed pages of problems accreditors found with health care quality and life-safety.

The lawmakers seemed most worried that hospital leaders admitted that not having or not following proper procedures led to all the problems Channel 2 investigative reporter Aaron Diamant has been reporting for weeks.

Those lawmakers showed up at the VA's front door Monday and then spent more than two hours inside meeting with hospital brass.

"Obviously there were some egregious errors that were made," House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller told Diamant.

Miller was one of the members of the Georgia congressional delegation that showed up at the VA for an emergency closed-door meeting with hospital leaders, looking for answers.

"I'm here because I want to hear exactly what they've got to say. Somebody has to be held accountable and have answers to the questions," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.

"This has been a colossal failure of the management of this hospital," said Rep. David Scott, D-Ga.

Scott wants heads to roll, planning to take the VA hospital case all the way to President Barack Obama.

"So that I can personally convey to him how desperate this situation is," Scott told Diamant.

An official VA photo shows the bipartisan delegation grilling the hospital's top brass.

"We stressed the importance to them that when you mess up, you fess up," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.

So far, there have been no firings.

"There have been some reprimands handed down, but I'm not sure that that's enough. We've got to get to the bottom of it," said Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga.

And while Miller called the conversation with hospital leaders candid, he added, "If I walk away and find out that somebody was lying to me, I will make the very ground that they walk on shake."

This does not end here. Several members said they want to meet with the secretary of the VA, while Miller promised there will be hearings to find out just how deep the problems go at the hospital and whether they exist at other VA hospitals around the country.

Meanwhile in Washington, the investigation into the Atlanta VA Medical Center is leading to the cancellation of another round of salary bonuses for top VA executives at the hospital.

Two weeks after Channel 2's Scott MacFarlane reported mismanagement and a string of deaths inside the mental health unit at the VA, MacFarlane has learned top executives in Decatur, some of whom have recently been enjoying five-figure salary bonuses each year, will lose their bonus pay indefinitely.

Three deaths, including two suicides, have been linked to red tape, mismanagement and poor oversight of drugs inside the building.

"If there's one place, where results matter, its how we treat veterans when they return home from serving us on the battlefield," said Iraq War veteran Pete Hegseth,

In another case, a veteran in the Atlanta mental health ward managed to roam free in the building and inject testosterone.

The freeze on bonuses is just the first discipline for Atlanta VA managers to be publicly announced by agency leaders here in Washington, because of this mess.

In a statement to Channel 2 Action News, a representative said, "Performance awards for some VA senior executives have been deferred pending further review and are not being paid at this time."

Which means those bonuses could later be reinstated.

MacFarlane has learned, nationwide, the VA burned through $3 million tax dollars on exec bonuses in 2011, including more than $10,000 for former Atlanta VA Medical Center leader James Clark.

Bonuses have not been canceled for other VA managers nationwide, despite tight federal budgets.

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