Isakson backs Atlanta VA chief after apparent Cobb vet murder-suicide

Staff writer Brad Schrade contributed to this article.

As investigations continue into the Atlanta VA Medical Center’s care of a Cobb County veteran accused of killing herself and her three children, Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson on Tuesday backed the hospital’s leadership.

Isakson, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, said "I can't discuss everything I know" about the case of Kisha Holmes, a Marine veteran who was found dead last week in her Austell apartment along with her three children, ages 10, 4 and 9 months.

“But I think as the story unfolds, people will understand the VA does an excellent job,” Isakson said at a news conference. “And we recognize one of the big differences with soft tissue issues — which is (post-traumatic stress disorder) and (traumatic brain injury) — you have to have a continuum of care and contact where people can fall through the cracks.

“The Atlanta VA has done a wonderful job of seeing to it that the veteran has the close touch and the close contact with the VA mental health supervisors there in charge of it. And I’m sure when all the facts come out, we’ll understand this tragedy was something, hopefully, that could have been prevented. But we’ll do a better job of seeing to it that it doesn’t happen again.”

Isakson said he has "absolute faith" in hospital director Leslie Wiggins, who was installed in 2013 after audits blamed mismanagement for three mental health patient deaths at the hospital. It's an agencywide problem, one that Congress hoped to address in part by passing a veterans suicide prevention bill Tuesday.

On Jan. 27 — the day Holmes and her children were found — Wiggins called the staff director of Isakson’s Veterans Affairs Committee to tell him about the incident. The next day, shortly before the VA told the public that Holmes was a veteran, Wiggins spoke to Isakson about the case.

“Any time somebody tells you they’ll call you if anything comes up — good or bad — and they call you when it comes up, even when it’s the worst it could be, you know you’ve got somebody who’s good to their word,” Isakson said. “The veterans of Georgia are lucky to have her at the head of that hospital.”

Internal VA records obtained by Channel 2 Action News showed that Holmes had been labeled a "high risk for suicide" and that she had missed two mental health appointments in December.

Wiggins has refused to be interviewed or discuss the case. Senior officials in Atlanta VA’s mental health and suicide prevention programs granted an interview on Tuesday after setting conditions that they would not answer questions about the Holmes case.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald would not offer specifics on the case Tuesday, but he said his agency was working to tackle the problem wholesale.

“We are hiring mental health professionals,” said McDonald, who replaced scandal-tarred Eric Shinseki last year. “We are trying to reduce wait times. We’re trying to make sure the people who are flagged are contacted frequently, but we need to do the investigation in this case to get into what actually happened.”

The news conference at the VA’s Washington headquarters came after McDonald and the leaders of the House and Senate VA committees met, then held a town hall with agency employees.

Isakson; House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla.; and the committees' top Democrats, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida, pledged robust oversight and implementation of a complex law passed last year to correct problems after a spate of scandals. But they also sought to do more, in Blumenthal's words, "to highlight what the VA is doing right."

“It is recruiting more doctors,” Blumenthal said. “It is seeking to drive down wait times and increase the quality of care.”

Shortly after the congressional leaders’ VA visit, the Senate voted 99-0 to send the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act to the president’s desk.

The bill was Isakson's first as VA chairman. It seeks to improve mental health treatment for veterans by repaying student loans for psychiatrists who join the Department of Veterans Affairs, and developing peer support groups and community outreach with veterans' service groups.