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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.
The Trump administration is considering sheltering unaccompanied immigrant children apprehended along the southwest border at Fort Benning, the sprawling Columbus-area military installation, according to the Pentagon and U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
It is unknown how many children could be housed there and for how long. But Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan approved a request from the Department of Health and Human Services in April for the Pentagon to find space for up to 5,000 at military bases.
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.
Reality Winner on Thursday received a record-setting prison sentence — five years and three months behind bars — for leaking a top-secret government report about Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Reality Winner, the first person to be prosecuted by the Trump administration for leaking sensitive government information, pleaded guilty Tuesday to sending to the news media a top-secret National Security Agency report about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Reality Leigh Winner should be released from jail pending her trial in the National Security Agency leak investigation because new information has surfaced that weakens the government’s case for keeping her behind bars, her attorneys are arguing in new court papers.