Cobb veterans frustrated, hopeful as VA remakes local system

FILE PHOTO: Veterans Reuel Hamilton, left, and Robert Bukofske salute the flag during a ceremony at the conclusion of the annual Marietta Veterans Day Parade in Marietta. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
FILE PHOTO: Veterans Reuel Hamilton, left, and Robert Bukofske salute the flag during a ceremony at the conclusion of the annual Marietta Veterans Day Parade in Marietta. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

For years, the Department of Veterans Affairs operated a single clinic in Cobb County, a facility in Austell that veterans said was too crowded, outdated and poorly equipped for handicapped patients.

But the VA's plan to shutdown the facility later this year and open new clinics to help service the county's 40,000 veterans has created a new set of complaints.

Veterans and local elected leaders say they welcome the new VA clinics set to replace the Austell facility, but are frustrated by the federal agency’s poor communication, which has caused unnecessary stress to some of the most vulnerable in its care.

South Cobb Commissioner Lisa Cupid said she didn’t know the VA clinic in her district was closing until she started getting calls from concerned constituents. She said she has been unable to get answers from the VA about what’s happening and how the new locations were selected.

“It goes to an overarching view that resources tend to be more starved in the southern end of the county when there is need there,” Cupid said. “I’m hoping that there has been better communication with actual veterans.”

The VA plans to keep the Austell clinic operating until the replacement facilities are open. Three clinics, located in west Cobb, Marietta and Smyrna, are scheduled to come online sometime this year.

A fourth, 80,000 square foot facility is slated to open on Bells Ferry Road, but the VA has not released a timeline for that project.

The expansion in Cobb comes as the agency readies for new pressures with the veteran population aging across the country and the demand for medical service expected to increase.

The Cobb clinics are part of the Atlanta VA Medical Center system that faced scandal in 2013 after a rash of veteran suicides were blamed on mismanagement within the hospital's mental health unit. In 2014, a marine veteran in Cobb suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder killed her three children before ending her own life. Roughly 17 veterans a day commit suicide across the country.

Once the new Cobb facilities are open, mental health care will be provided in Smyrna at 2400 Herodian Way, not far from SunTrust Park. The west Cobb facility, located at the corner of Dallas Highway and Midway Road, will offer mainly primary care services, as will the Marietta branch at 2217 Roswell Road behind Mazzy’s sports bar.

In a statement, the Atlanta VA said it “continues to evaluate the needs of our Veterans to ensure that we meet our goals of providing quality care that is second to none.”

“Our future direction is based upon these identified needs as well as projected demand to ensure we are true to our mission, vision and goals,” it said.

But veterans and their advocates say the VA has left them in the dark about the plans.

Dan Hydrick, a Vietnam veteran and volunteer with the Cobb Veterans Court, said he learned that mental health services would be moved to the Smyrna location when contacted for this story, despite his efforts to engage the VA on the subject.

While Hydrick believes the Austell facility is subpar and welcomes its replacement, the uncertainty is taking its toll. Veterans don’t know when the clinic will close, whether they’ll have to go through the VA’s assignment process again, if they’ll have to switch doctors, how far they’ll have to travel or how they’ll arrange transportation to the new location.

“A lot of mental health is being done out of Austell, and what we’re seeing is the anxiety of change,” said Hydrick. “It’s what they do to veterans in the periphery that causes things like this to be so horrific on tension and stress.”

Harold Watkins, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Marietta Post 2681, said the Austell clinic is too small and dispersing veterans throughout three clinics could fix some of the crowding issues.

“The problem is they’re just understaffed,” Watkins said. “They can’t even staff what they’ve got already.”