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Friday, August 8, 2014 - 12:50pm

Progress At VA Hospital Is Slow, Despite Changes

Updated: 3 months ago.
Wait times are down and the quality of patient care is up, according to officials at Atlanta’s Veterans’ Administration hospital. But the VA hospital’s chief, Leslie Wiggins [in picture, left, with Chief of Staff Dr. David Bower], says there’s still much work to be done. Wiggins took office a little over a year in the wake of a system-wide scandal over excessive wait times that led to veterans dying before they could receive care.

Officials with Atlanta’s VA hospital say they are cutting wait times for appointments and adding staff, in response to system-wide allegations over the past year that veterans died while waiting for care.

But the chief of staff at the Veterans’ Administration hospital, Dr. David Bower, said Friday that the size of Atlanta’s military population makes it difficult to quickly improve conditions.

“A lot of the measures that we are challenged with are directly or indirectly related to access and capacity and being able to absorb the growth that is coming to our VA," he told reporters at a briefing. "We are one of the fastest growing VAs and one of the fastest demands for care, and that’s reflected in our wait times not being where we want them to be.”

Bower and the VA hospital’s new chief, Leslie Wiggins held the briefing to provide an update on ongoing improvements to the quality and speed of care at the facility.

Wiggins said while veterans are receiving care sooner, and that care is of a better quality, there's still much work to be done.

"We recognize we are not perfect," she said.

She said in particular the quality of mental health care is improving.

“We have increased the number of patients we can take," she said. "We reduced the wait times for mental health care. We reduced the number of contract facilities that we allow to take care of veterans. We had some 20 contract facilities now we are down to five or six.”

Wiggins took office a little over a year in the wake of a system-wide scandal over excessive wait times that led to veterans -- including three in Atlanta -- dying before they could receive care.

One man whose father is a World War II vet said conditions are finally improving at Atlanta's VA hospital. Sitting outside of the hospital Friday afternoon with his father, who uses a wheelchair, he declined to give his name. But said much has changed since Wiggins arrived.

"He's finally getting better care," he of his father. "I couldn't say that a year ago. Things were just wrong. Employee moral. Workers bickering with each other. People not doing their jobs properly. But that is changing."

Atlanta’s VA hospital served 90,000 patients last year and is one of the fastest growing VA facilities. Wiggins says she expects an additional 20,000 vets to see care at the hospital in the next three to five years.

The Atlanta VA plans to open a new center in Decatur and significantly expand another facility in Austell.