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A special Veterans Affairs office created in 2017 to protect whistleblowers and punish incompetent or corrupt VA employees has been a colossal failure, according to a blistering investigation released Thursday by the VA's inspector general.
The report comes as the VA district that includes Georgia replaced top leadership last month and the main regional hospital in Decatur for military veterans undergoes an investigation of medical practices amid widespread problems. Regional VA employees lodged close to 300 complaints with the inspector general in the last two years, ranging from retaliation against employees by superiors to abuse of authority.
The inspector general said the nationwide Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) failed from top to bottom. Investigations were incompetently carried out and biased. The office also failed to protect whistleblowers' identities and allowed their information to get back to the people or offices being investigated, letting whistleblowers become the subjects of retaliatory investigations.
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.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs put on leave an Atlanta-based administrator and reassigned the region's chief medical officer and seven other staff members while it investigates the treatment of a veteran under its care.
Joel Marrable's daughter discovered more than 100 ant bites on her father when she visited him in early September.
The daughter, Laquna Ross, told Channel 2 Action News: "His room had ants, the ceiling, the walls, the beds. They were everywhere. The staff member says to me, 'When we walked in here, we thought Mr. Marrable was dead. We thought he wasn't even alive, because the ants were all over 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.