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A Vietnam vet found covered in ant bites is forcing the Atlanta VA to finally reckon with years of dangerous practices
Dawn Brys got an early taste of the crisis unfolding at the largest Veterans Affairs hospital in the Southeast.
The Air Force vet said she went to the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur last year for surgery on a broken foot. But the doctor called it off because the surgical instruments hadn't been properly sterilized.
"The tools had condensation on them," recalled Brys, a 50-year-old Marietta resident. The doctor rescheduled it for the next day.
Now the 400-plus-bed hospital on Clairmont Road that serves about 120,000 military veterans is in a state of emergency. It suspended routine surgeries in late September after a string of incidents that exposed mismanagement and dangerous practices. It hopes to resume normal operations by early November as it struggles to retrain staff and hire new nurses.
The partial shutdown came about two weeks after Joel Marrable, a cancer patient in the same VA complex, was found covered with more than 100 ant bites by his daughter. Also in September, the hospital's canteen was temporarily closed for a pest investigation.
The mounting problems triggered a leadership shakeup Sept. 17, when regional director Leslie Wiggins was put on administrative leave. Dr. Arjay K. Dhawan, the regional medical director, was moved to administrative duties pending an investigation. Seven staff members were reassigned to non-patient care.
The only question for some military veterans and staff is why the VA waited so long. They say problems existed for years under Wiggins' leadership, but little was done.
Military retirees, those who receive disability or other benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, federal retirees and social security recipients will see a 1.6% increase in their monthly checks for 2020.
The annual Cost Of Living Allowance (COLA) is smaller than the 2.8% increase from last year but in line with the historical increases seen over the last ten years. Each year military retirement pay, Survivor Benefit Plan Annuities, VA Compensation and Pensions, and Social Security benefits are adjusted for the rate of inflation.
A federal court has ruled that the Department of Veterans Affairs wrongly denied reimbursements to veterans who received emergency medical care at non-VA facilities, a decision that could result in payouts to veterans totaling billions.
Chief Judge Navy Capt. James Crisfield delivered the opinion last week, joined by Senior Judges Navy Capt. Marcus Fulton and Marine Col. Jonathan Hitesman. The decision was made as a result of an appeal from retired Chief Petty Officer Stephen Begani, who was court-martialed after leaving the Navy on charges of attempted sexual abuse of a child.
Veterans may have wrongly been billed by the Department of Veterans Affairs for emergency room medical treatment at non-VA facilities totaling at least $53.3 million, according to the office of the VA Inspector General.
Following an audit, the IG estimated that "about 17,400 veterans, with bills totaling at least $53.3 million, were negatively affected" by either initial denial or ultimate rejection of their claims for reimbursement.
An arm of the Veterans Affairs Department in Atlanta eliminated 208,272 applications from across the country for health care early this year amid efforts to shrink a massive backlog of requests, saying they were missing signatures or information about military service and income, according to records reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Veterans groups say the VA should have done more to communicate with the veterans before closing their applications, some of which date back to 1998. Troops face additional challenges in applying for VA health care, they said, as they grapple with reentry into civilian life, change addresses following overseas deployments and suffer from combat stress.
In the middle of the controversy is the VA's Health Eligibility Center, the Atlanta office that oversees the process by which veterans seek access to the VA medical system. It and its parent agency have come under intense scrutiny in recent years for mismanagement and delays in providing medical care, presenting a thorny challenge for the administration of President Donald Trump, who focused on veterans' care during his presidential campaign.