VA hospital tackles persistent parking problem

Spotlight: Demand in care at DeKalb facility mandates changes

The line of cars waiting to drop off patients at the Atlanta VA Medical Center wrapped around the building. It snaked past the outpatient services entrance, then curved back toward the property’s north entrance off Clairmont Road.

“This is a very good day,” said 81-year-old Marge Brownlow, a Vietnam veteran of the Army Nurse Corps. Brownlow, who traveled from Gainesville for an appointment, was sitting in a line of more than 40 cars Tuesday morning waiting to park. It took her about 20 minutes to near the front of the line.

“The last time I was here, it was 30 to 40 minutes,” she said.

A crush of veterans seeking care at the Decatur hospital has resulted in a parking logjam that has gotten progressively worse over the past two years, local veterans organizations say. While the hospital’s director is working to free up more space, some Georgia officials say the parking situation is more evidence the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs needs to open a second hospital in the Atlanta area.

Georgia Department of Veterans Service Commissioner Pete Wheeler, who is advocating the idea, has likened the influx of veterans and the parking situation at the current hospital to “trying to put a size 12 foot in a size 7 shoe.”

Georgia is home to 770,000 veterans — and 453,000 of them live in the 50 counties served by the Atlanta VA Medical Center. The state’s other VA medical centers are in Dublin and Augusta.

The Atlanta hospital is crammed into a tight space along Clairmont Road, bordered by Emory’s Clairmont campus and the VA regional office.

The hospital treated 67,321 unique patients and had 681,629 outpatient visits in fiscal year 2008, records show. Hospital director James Clark said he expects 72,500 unique patients this year, up from 57,350 in 2005 — despite the opening of additional VA clinics around Atlanta.

“We have 50 to 70 new veterans walking in every day seeking their benefits,” Clark said. And it’s not just new veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many are veterans of Vietnam and the first Gulf War. The worsening economy is also playing a role: As veterans lose jobs and private insurance, they’re increasingly turning to the VA for health care.

The hospital is treating all comers and even has improved its patient satisfaction scores with the medical care provided, Clark said. But the parking remains a stubborn problem.

Clark, who became hospital director in January 2008, said he’s doing everything he can to improve parking. He regularly meets with veterans organizations and has sent out a series of open letters to patients, family and staff on what’s being done.

“The lack of parking space continues to be one of our biggest challenges and top priorities,” Clark wrote in his latest update, dated July 6.

The property currently has 552 parking spaces for patients and 1,325 for staff.

The hospital is moving as many staff as possible to off-site parking, Clark said. About 200 spaces are leased elsewhere, and the hospital is seeking bids for additional off-site parking lots for both employees and patients.

The VA provides incentives for staff to use MARTA and van pools. It provides a shuttle service every 15 minutes to move staff and patients from its Decatur Clinic, MARTA and two VA administration buildings.

To squeeze even more parking space out of the hospital’s front lots and even the edges of its roads, nearly all patient and visitor parking is handled by a free valet service. Employee parking, in some cases required by union contracts, is mostly in a garage behind the hospital. On Sept. 1, construction will begin on a new parking deck behind the hospital that should add 380 spaces when work is finished in about a year. Clark hopes to build a large parking deck in front of the hospital in 2012.

“I think we’ve tried to be very proactive,” he said.

Despite the parking backups, Clark said the hospital is largely meeting its performance requirements to give veterans appointments for elective procedures within 30 days of their requests and to see patients within 20 minutes of their appointment time. But to do this, he said, has meant hiring more staff — which further adds to the parking demand.

Several veterans said they are sympathetic to the hospital’s plight.

“As many patients as they’re seeing here, with the limited space they’ve got, there’s not a whole lot to be done,” said Brownlow.

Still, many expressed annoyance as they sat in their cars Tuesday waiting to park.

“They’ve got us crammed in here like sardines,” said Michael Ogletree, 57, a Vietnam Army veteran from Atlanta who was on his way to a surgical appointment.

“It’s terrible,” said Navy veteran Donald Boyd, 64, who had traveled to the hospital from the Pike County town of Zebulon. “They need some more parking.”

Is the Atlanta VA Medical Center more overrun with patients than others across the nation? Despite several requests since Monday, VA officials at the regional office in Atlanta and at the headquarters in Washington were unable to provide the AJC with patient care numbers for VA hospitals across the country. (The AJC has since filed a request for this data under the federal Freedom of Information Act.)

This summer, Wheeler has been urging local veterans groups to lobby their members of Congress to fund a new VA hospital on Atlanta’s southwest side. Getting a second VA hospital in the metro area is a priority of the commissioner since most of the state’s veterans live north of I-20, said his spokesman, Brian Zeringue.

Wheeler told VA Secretary Eric Shinseki the area needs a second hospital during a one-on-one meeting at the Decatur hospital in February, Zeringue said. Wheeler was unavailable for an interview last week. A VA spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment about the agency’s position on whether Atlanta needs a second hospital.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said he’s acutely aware of the parking problems. “It’s so significant that I’ve spent a good deal of time on it,” said Isakson, who serves on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

He said he’s quizzed the VA’s national facilities officials about the problem and why it wasn’t anticipated as construction was done over the years on the hospital’s campus.

For now, Isakson said, he thinks the hospital’s leadership is doing what it can with the hand it’s been dealt. And he’s not ready to say Atlanta needs a second VA hospital.

“Right now we need to finish the improvements on the hospital we have,” he said. They include significant renovations throughout the hospital.

While officials at local veterans service organizations credit hospital officials for their efforts, parking continues to be a major hassle and source of complaints.

“I have one guy that parked at a private practice clinic behind the VA and they booted his car because he could not find any other place to park,” said Dan Cravey, a service officer for the American Legion who works with veterans at the adjacent VA regional office.

“It truly is horrible,” said Albert Spears, state adjutant for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Georgia.

“I went there one day and there were 57 cars in line for valet parking in front of me. I know that recently we had an individual on oxygen who was waiting for parking and his oxygen tank ran out. He was not injured,” Spears said, “but he was having difficulty breathing by the time he got up there.”

BY THE NUMBERS:

Atlanta VA Medical Center

453,000

Veterans in 50 Georgia counties served by the hospital

67,321

Unique patients treated in fiscal year 2008

72,500

Unique patients estimated to be treated this year

2,260

Staff employed by the hospital, including about 200 doctors and 560 nurses

1,325

Parking spaces for staff

552

Parking spaces for patients/visitors

2,932

Average patients seen per day

1,100 to 1,200

Patient and visitor cars parked daily by valets

Sources: Hospital officials, VA Office of Inspector General

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