The Atlanta VA Medical Center installed anti-climbing fences on its parking decks in 2016. The $850,000 project was in response to a pair of incidents where suicidal veterans threatened to jump, but were talked down. BRAD SCHRADE/ BSCHRADE@AJC.COM

New audit: Staffing shortages hamper Atlanta VA

The Atlanta VA Medical Center leads the veterans health care system in a negative measurement: the hospital on Clairmont Road has the highest number of staffing shortages of any VA hospital in the country, according to a new audit by the agency’s inspector general.

The facility listed 89 positions designated as shortages, including critical clinical jobs such as neurologist, staff nurses and pathologist. The annual review by the inspector general is part of an effort over the past five years to reduce wait times for veterans seeking medical care across the country.

The Atlanta VA medical center cares for 145,000 veterans annually. Medical Center Director Annette P. Walker and other officials at the facility declined to comment on the inspector general’s findings.

VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal issued a statement with the release of the report last Thursday saying he hopes it spurs meaningful discussion and helps inform staffing decisions “that will result in the highest possible quality of veteran care.”

The Atlanta facility had the highest number of listed staff shortages among the 140 VA hospitals in the review. The hospital in Danville, Ill., was next closest with 83 positions listed as staffing shortages. The other two VA hospitals in Georgia listed a lower number of shortages. The facility in Dublin listed 35 positions as shortages and the Augusta hospital had 10 position shortages.

The Atlanta VA hospital is one of the busiest in the country and one of the fastest growing in terms of demand. The facility last year received a 3 star rating on the VA’s hospital quality measurement, dubbed STAR. Five is the highest rating.

Auditors and investigators have dinged the facility in Atlanta in the past. Earlier this year, the inspector general found the facility failed to conduct criminal background checks and drug screening for employees in a timely manner.

Last year, the inspector general raised fresh concerns about patient safety and cleanliness at the facility, even noting damaged furniture as a problem.

Psychologist is one of on the positions Atlanta listed in the new report on staff shortages.

In 2013, a rash of veteran suicides thrust the facility into an unwanted spotlight. The problems were blamed on mismanagement and led to a brutal inspector general’s report and congressional review. In 2016, the facility installed an $850,000 anti-climbing fence on its parking decks to alleviate concerns about veterans jumping to harm themselves.

The report did not offer specific reasons for the shortages in Atlanta. However, the inspector general found the most common reasons cited for staffing shortages across the country include lack of qualified applicants, non-competitive salaries and high staff turnover.

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