For her part, Paige Fluker, the regional network spokeswoman who told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Walker remained in her post, said her statement was technically correct because Walker wasn’t leaving until the end of the month.
“The answer was actually, factually accurate for that day and that time and that moment,” said Fluker.
Critics have complained for years that managers are more interested in internal politics than improving conditions at the chronically troubled hospital, which serves 145,000 of the region’s veterans annually. The Atlanta VA continues to experience setbacks despite years of attempts at reform.
This year was no exception. A June Inspector General audit found that the hospital has the highest staffing shortages of any VA hospital in the country. A Sept. 13 report by the VA's Office of Inspector General found that the Women Veterans Health Program failed to complete mammograms for dozens of patients.
On Sept. 25, the AJC reported that the Decatur-area hospital's overall quality rating fell from three stars to one — the lowest in the VA's five-star ranking system. This placed the Atlanta's VA is among the lowest-scoring 10 percent of the department's 100-plus medical centers nationwide.
And on Oct. 2, the AJC reported that inspectors discovered more than one ton of hazardous waste packed floor to ceiling in unsafe conditions at an Atlanta VA parking lot.
Bob Teets, a U.S. Marine veteran who serves on the Atlanta VA director’s advisory council, said he saw improvements under Walker and was shocked to see her go. He said the former medical director was the first in years to consistently walk the hospital floors to ask veterans for input.
“I think the transparency issue comes from Leslie Wiggins,” said Teets, referring to the former Atlanta VA head who was promoted to be director of Veterans Integrated Service Network 7. VISN 7 oversees medical facilities across Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
The internal memo that announced Walker’s departure was signed by Wiggins. It did not mention Walker by name, but did say that “The Medical Center Director and Chief of Staff chose to retire, effective October 31.”
Including Dhawan, the memo announced by name six interim hospital administrators, including new chiefs of staff, primary care and the emergency department.
The goal of the message was to keep staff informed during a difficult time, according to the memo.
“Transparency is key to maintaining the trust of our Veterans and employees,” it read.