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A VA worker survived a shooting at his hospital. Now he's stuck in a 'bizarre' maze of federal workers' comp claims
RIVIERA BEACH — When a distraught patient opened fire at the VA Medical Center in February, Albert Gaines' long ago military training kicked into gear.
"When I saw the arm come up, I knew what was next, pow, pow, pow," said Gaines, who was doing his job, cleaning patient rooms, when gunfire erupted. "I hit the deck to minimize the target."
Now, three months after what his bosses at the hospital call "the active shooter incident," the 65-year-old Riviera Beach man still feels like a target is on him.
Olen Hancock, whose life had faded in many ways, shot himself outside the entrance of a Veterans Affairs hospital in Decatur earlier this month. He was 68.
A day earlier, Steven Pressley, after years of chronic pain, shot himself in the parking lot of a VA hospital in Dublin. He was 28.
At least 22 military veterans committed suicide at VA centers in the U.S. in the last 18 months, including a Texas man who shot himself this month in the waiting room of a VA clinic.
Veteran suicide is an acute crisis wrapped in a national crisis. Between 2005 and 2016, suicide rates in the general population climbed 21%. For veterans, already taking their lives at twice the U.S. rate, it climbed 26%. More than 6,000 veterans are dying by their own hands each year – nearly 20 a day.
The latest deaths renew questions about whether the VA, criticized and investigated for failing to provide timely or sufficient help to veterans, is doing enough to solve the problem. That is despite making suicide prevention a high priority in recent years.
Two veterans killed themselves at separate Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals in Georgia over the weekend, refocusing attention on what the VA has called its "highest clinical priority."
The first death happened Friday in a parking lot at the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin, according to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson's office. The second occurred Saturday outside the main entrance to the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur on Clairmont Road. The VA declined to identify the victims or describe the circumstances of their deaths, citing privacy concerns.
An email the VA sent the Georgia Department of Veterans Service Monday about the Atlanta incident said VA clinical staff provided immediate aid to the male victim and called 911. The veteran was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
"This incident remains under investigation and we are working with the local investigating authorities," the email continued. "The family has been contacted and offered support."
The victim in Atlanta was 68 years old and shot himself, according to a person familiar with the investigation who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
More than 6,000 veterans killed themselves each year between 2008 and 2016. In 2016, 202 people died by suicide in Georgia. And between 2015 and 2016, the suicide rate per 100,000 people for veterans ages 18 to 34 increased from 40.4 to 45 nationwide, despite the VA's efforts to tackle the problem.
In 2013, the VA disclosed that two of its officials had retired, three had been reprimanded and others were facing unspecified "actions" after reports of rampant mismanagement and patient deaths at the VA hospital in Decatur. Federal inspectors issued scathing audits that linked mismanagement to the deaths of three veterans there.
In one case, a man who was trying to see a VA psychiatrist who was unavailable was told by hospital workers to take public transportation to an emergency room. He never did and died by suicide the next day. Another man died of an apparent drug overdose after providers failed to connect him with a psychiatrist. And a third patient died of an overdose of drugs given to him by another patient. The death of a fourth veteran, who killed himself in a hospital bathroom, later came to light.
In 2014, the Atlanta center drew attention again after the murder-suicide of Marine veteran Kisha Holmes. She killed her three children and then herself at the family's Cobb County apartment. VA officials knew she was in distress and had identified her as a suicide risk.
And in November, the Government Accountability Office released a report saying the Veterans Health Administration had spent only $57,000 of the $6.2 million budgeted for fiscal year 2018 for suicide prevention media outreach because of leadership turnover and reorganization within the agency.
"By not assigning key leadership responsibilities and clear lines of reporting, VHA's ability to oversee the suicide prevention media outreach activities was hindered and these outreach activities decreased," the report said.
The VA said Monday it was reviewing its policies and procedures to see if changes are needed, adding all of its facilities provide "same-day urgent primary and mental health care services." The agency also highlighted its Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and www.veteranscrisisline.net
"Suicide prevention is VA's highest clinical priority," the VA said in a prepared statement. "We are working alongside dozens of partners, including [the Department of Defense], to deploy suicide prevention programming that supports all current and former service members — even those who do not come to VA for care."
Isakson, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, released a statement Monday, saying he was in touch with the VA about its investigations of last weekend's suicides, calling them "tragedies that we hear about far too often."
"While we have taken a number of steps to address and prevent veteran suicide, this weekend's tragic deaths clearly indicate that we must do better," he said. "We will redouble our efforts on behalf of our veterans and their loved ones, including our efforts to reduce the stigma of seeking treatment for mental health issues."
Mike Roby, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Veterans Service, said he also is keeping in touch with the VA about what happened.
"I and my senior staff will stay in close contact with both medical directors and their staff as they work with the federal authorities through the investigations," he said by email. "Our field service officers located at both medical centers remain ready to assist and support veterans and their families."
©2019 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Obesity cannot be considered a service-connected disability, according to a new ruling by the Department of Veterans Affairs General Counsel expected to be published in the April 8, 2019, edition of the Federal Register.
For six years, dozens of homeless veterans have recovered from trauma in nine cottages along a winding residential road in Echo Park. The Billets — military jargon for civilian quarters — has been a model.
The 72-bed program places as much as 70% of its chronically homeless veterans — male and female — in permanent housing, according to Volunteers of America, which operates the program. It's based in a tranquil, leafy and gentrifying neighborhood of families and young professionals a short walk from a doughnut shop, a grocery store and multiple bus lines.
But on Monday, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is closing the Billets for good.
The newest FDA-approved medication to treat severe depression, a nasal spray based on the anesthetic (and misused hallucinogenic party drug) ketamine, will soon be available to veterans treated within the Department of Veterans Affairs.