The front entrance to the Atlanta VA Medical Center, located on Clairmont Road in Decatur. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Atlanta veterans hospital suspends routine surgeries amid problems

Local VA facility only performing emergency operations in October

The Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center has sharply reduced surgeries as it overhauls operations, the latest sign of significant troubles at the hospital for the area’s military veterans.

The Decatur facility stopped performing routine surgeries because of serious problems involving medical procedures, two employees told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. One cited management and equipment issues including shortages in sterilized equipment and sutures, staff not showing up on time and veterans canceling at the last minute. Both employees spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Only emergency surgeries have been performed since Sept. 23, and normal operations aren’t expected to resume until the end of October.

The lengthy layoff will add more wait time for veterans. Surgery dates at the hospital already can take three months or more, according to two other hospital employees, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The VA confirmed to the AJC that operations have been scaled back, but didn’t share specifics behind the decision.

“Atlanta VA Health Care System is committed to continuously improving patient safety,” the hospital wrote in an email. “That’s why the facility’s leadership made the decision … to temporarily reduce the number of Veterans treated for elective cases until the end of October, when the facility’s operating rooms will begin phasing in additional cases.”

Elective cases are regularly scheduled surgeries. Hospital staff can still perform emergency surgery.

The VA said between Sept. 23 and Oct. 10 it rescheduled or sent out 100 patients to non-VA facilities. The hospital has performed 130 surgeries.

The VA said surgical staff will spend a month training and reviewing procedures, practices and policies.

The Atlanta hospital has been wracked by problems for years. It posted a one-star score last year in the VA’s hospital rating system, the lowest-possible score.

It also reported the most difficulty of 140 medical facilities in recruiting workers, with doctors and nurses topping the list, according to a September VA inspector general’s report.

One of the employees told the AJC this week that shortages keep some doctors and nurses working 10 to 12 hours a day and still not being able to get all their work done.

Suspending routine surgeries for a month is highly unusual, according to medical experts.

“Even a week would be out of the ordinary,” said John Gialanella, co-founder of Surgery Management Improvement Group, a Michigan business that consults nationally on setting up and managing surgical units.

Dr. Westley Clark, a psychiatrist who worked with private hospitals and for the VA for 14 years in California, said he has never heard of shutting down an operating unit for a month.

It’s good they had the courage to shut down and deal with the issues, but it’s bad that the problem reached a point that needs a month to fix, said Clark, who teaches public health policy at Santa Clara University and serves on the advisory board of the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute.

The VA complex in Atlanta drew national attention early last month when Joel Marrable, a veteran dying from cancer, was found by his daughter covered in ant bites.

On Sept. 16, national leaders put regional director Leslie Wiggins on administrative leave. The regional medical director, Dr. Arjay K. Dhawan, was assigned to administrative duties pending a review of quality and safety of care issues. Seven staff members were reassigned to non-patient care.

The interim regional director, Scott Isaacks, was assigned from a VA hospital in Charleston that posted four- and five-star scores in recent years. Five is the highest score in the system.

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