VA documents: Tear down Atlanta long-term care facility

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Local Veterans Administration officials have proposed an ant-infested, long-term-care facility in Decatur be torn down and replaced. The Georgia officials recently made the recommendation to VA leaders in Washington after veterans . were moved out of the 90,000 square-foot Eagles’ Nest Community Living Center. A VA assessment last summer found an infestation of fire ants, which had plagued veterans living there, cannot be eradicated, according to the documents. Local, regional and national VA offices declined to answer questions from the AJC about the future of Eagles’ Nest. The documents reviewed by the AJC, which have not been made public, say regional and Atlanta leaders want to build a larger multi-use building on the site. Planning and construction could take five years and cost more than $70 million. The new building could ease space shortages and include administrative and clinical offices, including a women’s health center

Dozens of veterans moved out of ant-infested building in April

Local Veterans Administration officials have proposed an ant-infested, long-term-care facility in Decatur be torn down and replaced.

The Georgia officials recently made the recommendation to VA leaders in Washington after veterans were moved out of the 90,000 square-foot Eagles’ Nest Community Living Center, according to internal VA documents reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A VA assessment last summer found an infestation of fire ants, which had plagued veterans living there, cannot be eradicated, according to the documents. Earlier VA documents reviewed by the AJC also warned of cracks in the roof.

The VA transferred the 34 residents in April to other facilities scattered across three states. Eagles’ Nest is located in a separate building on the VA hospital campus in Decatur, the largest VA complex in the Southeast.

Local, regional and national VA offices declined to answer questions from the AJC about the future of Eagles’ Nest. The regional office acknowledged receipt of a Freedom of Information Act request for studies, plans or reviews of the building, but did not provide any information.

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The VA hospital complex in Decatur includes a long-term care facility that local officials say should be torn down and replaced. The VA moved veterans out of it and sent them to locations in Alabama, South Carolina and south Georgia last spring, separating them from families.

Credit: Jason Getz jgetz@ajc.com

The VA hospital complex in Decatur includes a long-term care facility that local officials say should be torn down and replaced. The VA moved veterans out of it and sent them to locations in Alabama, South Carolina and south Georgia last spring, separating them from families.

Credit: Jason Getz jgetz@ajc.com

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The VA hospital complex in Decatur includes a long-term care facility that local officials say should be torn down and replaced. The VA moved veterans out of it and sent them to locations in Alabama, South Carolina and south Georgia last spring, separating them from families.

Credit: Jason Getz jgetz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz jgetz@ajc.com

The documents reviewed by the AJC, which have not been made public, say regional and Atlanta leaders want to build a larger multi-use building on the site. Planning and construction could take five years and cost more than $70 million.

The new building could ease space shortages and include administrative and clinical offices, including a women’s health center. Georgia has one of the largest state populations of female veterans — 93,000 according to the Georgia Department of Veterans Services.

The documents do not say if the proposal has been approved by Washington.

Families of the veterans who were removed have been hearing rumors for months from VA workers that the building would be torn down, but they have been told nothing officially. The veterans are being cared for in VA facilities in Alabama, South Carolina and Dublin, Ga.

The VA said in the spring it moved the veterans out of the building to limit their exposure to COVID-19, though campuses they were moved to also have had coronavirus cases.

In an emailed response Friday to AJC inquiries, the VA said: “Our decision proved to be prudent, and as a result, no (transferred Eagles’ Nest) residents currently have the virus.

“With area cases on the rise, we have no plans to change this arrangement until it is absolutely safe to do so.”

Joyce Jamison, whose husband Stuart, 79, was moved from Eagles’ Nest to Dublin, said she got a copy of a letter from a VA worker in mid-December which said the VA could try to move the veterans back to local private nursing homes, if the homes would accept them, with the VA paying.

The VA documents reviewed by the AJC say that could be an option to return the veterans to Atlanta before a new building is constructed.

Jamison said she would be hesitant to move Stuart to a new, strange place, and she would be concerned about the quality of care he would get.

She communicates with him, with help from nurses, via video calls twice a week, and the VA has recently allowed family members to visit for 15 minutes. COVID-19 protocols dictate that family members stay 15 feet away from their loved ones. She visited last month.

“I got reported because I ran over and hugged him,” said Jamison, who had not seen her husband face to face for six months.

Linda McCall, whose husband Ralph, 79, was also moved to Dublin, was thrilled with her 15-minute visit last month. It was a five-hour round trip.

“I stayed longer than 15 minutes, because he did not want me to leave,” McCall said.

She was headed back for another visit this month, but staff called and said she had to cancel because Ralph has a urinary tract infection.

Given that it could be five years before there is a new building, and knowing the tenuous nature of his health, McCall wasn’t sure he would make it back to a new facility. “I don’t know if it’ll matter for him or not.”

The process could also be at a standstill because of coming changes to national VA leadership. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, appointed by President Donald Trump, will leave office shortly. The next secretary will be appointed by President-elect Joe Biden after he is sworn in in January.

The problems with ants became public in September 2019 when the daughter of Eagles’ Nest patient Richard Marrable discovered him covered in more than 100 bites. Marrable, a cancer patient, died a few days later.

The VA investigated the incident and shortly afterward, a regional administrator was put on leave and retired. The region’s chief medical officer and seven other staff members were reassigned.

The investigation report has not been made public. But the AJC, after reviewing it, reported in May that the VA determined the ant problem had been recurring for months and blamed staff for a pervasive lack of leadership and accountability and repeated internal communication failures, among other breakdowns.

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