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Handling of director’s retirement points to troubled Atlanta VA culture

After news broke that the Atlanta VA Medical Center is now one of the worst in the nation, those who oversee it downplayed the personnel changes that followed.

An official public statement Oct. 18 called the changes in department heads “temporary” and said they were made out of “an abundance of caution,” but failed to mention the status of its Medical Director Annette P. Walker. A spokeswoman for the regional U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs network that oversees the Atlanta VA reassured the press that Walker would stay.

But that same day, that office issued an internal memo to staffers that said Walker had already been replaced. Longtime VA system administrator Dr. Ajay Dhawan took over as interim medical director effective immediately.

Veterans advocates said the strange decision to omit information that could be so easily known is yet another symptom of the poisonous culture at the Atlanta VA and among those who oversee it. The medical center improved recently on some key issues, said Amy Stevens, a former U.S. Navy officer and founder of veterans advocacy group Georgia Military Women. But reformers have never been able to get the massive bureaucracy to pay veterans the basic courtesy of shooting straight.

“They do that all the time,” Stevens said of the VA’s inaccurate claim. “A lot of times, they’re very condescending.”

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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.

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