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Senator touts VA overhaul as answer to Augusta's problems

(MCT) -- Outlining the benefits of a $16 billion reform package he helped negotiate last month, Sen. Johnny Isakson told Augusta veterans Tuesday they can expect more accountability, shorter waits and better health care at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center.

Before adjourning for a monthlong break, Isakson said, Congress agreed to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs by hiring thousands more nurses, doctors and mental health counselors; opening 27 new clinics nationwide; and allowing veterans who have waited at least a month for an appointment or live 40 miles from a VA facility to see private physicians at the government’s expense.

Most importantly, the senator said, the Veterans Access to Care Act revises employment rules to make it easier to fire senior VA executives judged to be negligent for poor performance.

Such reform might have been helpful at the Augusta VA in 2013, when former chief of staff Dr. Luke Stapleton received only “verbal counseling” for the hospital delaying 4,580 gastrointestinal consultations, leading to the deaths of three cancer patients.

Stapleton later voluntarily resigned from the position to become a staff physician, a job he still holds today.

“The VA didn’t have the ability to fire anyone, so they would move people to positions within the system that had the same level of pay,” said Isakson, a 10-year member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. “That’s not discipline. That’s not accountability. They have that authority now.”

Augusta was Isakson’s first stop in a statewide tour the senator is taking while away from Washington to conduct veteran-focused town-hall meetings in Georgia.

Close to 50 veterans filed into American Legion Post 205 on Highland Avenue to express concerns about long waits for appointments, delayed decisions on disability compensation and years of less-than-satisfactory treatment.

Isakson told Anita Savoy, a 48-year-old disabled Army veteran who lives in Augusta, that she might qualify for two years of outside care provided on the VA’s dime under the law signed by the president last week, because the system “abandoned her as a patient.”

Savoy, who served in the Gulf War as a communications officer, began receiving treatment for a brain tumor at the Augusta VA in the early 2000s, and after a series of prescription doses reduced swelling, she was ordered to have an MRI annually to ensure the condition did not return.

In 2005, however, Savoy told Isakson, the Augusta VA said it was discontinuing her MRIs because the scans were “too expensive.”

In April, an MRI by her doctor at the Augusta VA found the tumor had returned.

Savoy said she is now working full time to pay for a private surgeon to remove the growth, possibly as early as next month. Some days, she said, she has migraines, memory loss and difficulty standing.

“I’m not going to the VA anymore,” Savoy told the senator, visibly upset. “I’m using my private insurance to pay for treatment out of my own pocket.”

Before hearing veterans’ complaints, Isakson began his Augusta visit with a tour of the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, where he and Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., met with VA personnel.

Towards the end of his meeting with Director Bob Hamilton, the three discussed past delays in care, and the senator said he felt confident all wait times for new and established patients had either been eliminated in certain specialties or reduced to manageable levels.

However, Isakson also said he was disappointed to hear that Deputy VA Sec­retary Sloan Gibson said during a visit to the Augusta VA in July that the main reason for scheduling problems at the hospital is a shortage of clinicians.

Last month, hospital leadership reported that out of the 940 full-time clinical positions the facility is authorized to have, 151 nursing and 27 physician positions, including chief of staff and surgery, were vacant.

“That’s an excuse,” Isak­son said.

“We want to hear solutions,” Collins immediately followed.

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©2014 The Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Ga.). Tribune Information Services.

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