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Atlanta's VA hospital remains partially shut for surgeries, employees say

The Atlanta VA Medical Center.

VA

By CHRISTOPHER QUINN | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | Published: November 4, 2019

The suspension of routine surgeries at the troubled Veterans Administration hospital in Decatur is continuing past a deadline into a sixth week, according to people familiar with the matter.

A VA hospital spokesman declined to comment on the continued shutdown, the number of patients affected or new dates for offering full services. The VA originally promised to return to normal operations by the end of October.

But the VA confirmed Monday to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Leslie Wiggins, the regional director placed on administrative leave in September, left VA employment Oct. 18. It did not give details about the end of her service. Calls to Wiggins and her attorney were not immediately returned Monday.

The hospital — the largest in the Southeast for military veterans — has only been performing emergency surgeries since Sept. 23. It has struggled with poor management, low patient scores and mishaps, including the discovery of a dying veteran in its care covered in ant bites.

Operating rooms were shut down in September because of a lack of staff and supplies, surgical instruments with possible contamination and scheduling problems, according to two hospital employees at the hospital. The partial shutdown remained in place Monday, added the employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The VA confirmed in October rooms were shut down for surgery staff to review procedures, practices and policies and conduct retraining. Surgical patients were being rescheduled or sent to non-VA facilities, with the VA footing the bill, the agency said at the time.

Experts told the AJC that an operating-room shutdown of a even week would be highly unusual.

The lengthy layoff will add more wait time for veterans, who already face waits of more than three months for some medical procedures. The Decatur hospital and its satellite clinics serve 120,000 veterans in the area.

Veterans Integrated Service Network 7, home to about 1.2 million veterans in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, is the worst in the nation according to two recent VA measures. Veterans give it the lowest patient satisfaction scores of the country’s 18 regions and three of its eight hospitals, including Decatur, rank among the country’s four worst in employee satisfaction. The Decatur hospital also reported the most difficulty recruiting workers of 140 VA medical facilities in the U.S.

Dr. Richard Stone, the executive in charge of Veterans Health Administration, told the AJC last month that he has sent in special strike teams and mentors since last year to fix problems. He replaced the Decatur hospital administrator last spring. After the veteran was found covered in ant bites in September, he placed Wiggins and the regional medical director on leave and reassigned seven staff members to non-patient-care positions.

“I expect leaders to improve performance,” he told the AJC. “If they can’t, veterans deserve to have a leadership change.”

Wiggins was appointed as the Decatur hospital administrator in 2013 and was promoted to the post of regional director in 2015.

The VA in September assigned Scott Isaacks from a VA hospital in Charleston that posted four- and five-star scores in recent year as the interim regional director. Five is the highest score.

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