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VA removes regional officials after veteran was bitten by ants 100 times in nursing home

Leslie Wiggins (center) at a dedication ceremony in Feb. 2014.

U.S. DEPT. OF VETERANS AFFAIRS

By ROSE L. THAYER | Stars and Stripes | Published: September 17, 2019

A southeast regional director for the Veterans Health Administration was placed on administrative leave Tuesday, among other regional and Atlanta-area staff disciplinary actions, after a Vietnam veteran was bitten more than 100 times by ants nearly two weeks ago in a VA-run nursing home in Atlanta, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced.

The VA also announced an investigation into how the incident occurred and the staff’s handling of it is underway.

Leslie Wiggins, director of the VA Southeast Network, was placed on immediate administrative leave and Ajay K. Dhawan, the chief medical officer for the network, was assigned to other administrative duties outside the network, pending a review of the quality and safety of care issues, according to a VA news release. Scott Isaacks, director of the VA Medical Center in Charleston, S.C., will take over as acting network director.

The southeast network is one of 21 networks in the VA health system and has about 1.4 million veterans in its geographic region. It includes eight VA medical centers and numerous outpatient clinics located in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

The leadership moves come in response to three veterans sustaining ant bites while in the care of the Eagles’ Nest Community Living Center at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, and other unspecified “ongoing issues” within the region. The daughter of veteran Joel Marrable said she saw more than 100 ant bites on her father Sept. 6 when she visited him in the nursing home, according to a New York Daily News report. Marrable, a 74-year-old with cancer, died the following day of causes unrelated to the ant bites.

“What happened at Eagles’ Nest was unacceptable, and we want to ensure that veterans and families know we are determined to restore their trust in the facility,” said Dr. Richard Stone, VHA executive in charge. “Transparency and accountability are key principles at VA, and they will guide our efforts in this regard.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., expressed outrage last week about the incident and the VA’s lack of communication after it occurred.

Isakson, who is chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, spoke to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie on Tuesday and staff for Isakson said the senator “believes veterans in Georgia need to be reassured that the VA is doing everything in its power to ensure an incident like this never happens again.”

Lawrence B. Connell, VHA chief of staff, and Renee Oshinski, VHA deputy undersecretary for health for operations and management, were in Atlanta this week working with Ann Brown, the new director for the Atlanta VA Health Care System, to conduct an onsite review of the nursing home’s operations “to ensure it has the right leaders and staff in place to provide the highest quality health care and services possible,” according to the VA statement.

Seven Atlanta VA staff members were also moved into nonpatient-care positions while members of an administrative investigation board from outside the southeast network investigate the handling of the incident involving ants biting patients.

To improve reporting and communication, the administration realigned the VA’s Office of Network Support, a VA organization that had been responsible for collecting and disseminating reports regarding incidents at medical centers across the nation to VHA leadership.

“This move will streamline VA’s adverse action reporting processes by ensuring issues are quickly reported from local and regional officials to VHA leaders,” according to the statement.

The final action announced is a pledge to retrain all VA personnel involved in reporting urgent issues throughout the chain of command.

Aside from this month’s news of the ant-infestation, Inspector General report in July raised concerns about Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Ga. It cited leadership communication style and hiring and staffing challenges as part of the problem, as well as the competency of the nursing staff.

thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori
 

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