VA proposes massive changes to health-care system in Georgia

The Atlanta VA Health Care System is located on Clairmont Road in Decatur would be demolished and rebuilt if Congress adopts a new plan for revamping the VA's health care network in Georgia. Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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The Atlanta VA Health Care System is located on Clairmont Road in Decatur would be demolished and rebuilt if Congress adopts a new plan for revamping the VA's health care network in Georgia. Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Some improvements underway already in metro Atlanta

The Department of Veterans Affairs has proposed replacing problem-ridden and crumbling clinics and hospitals across the Southeast, including the four major hospitals in Georgia.

The multi-billion dollar demolition and rebuilding proposal would transform how veterans health care is delivered in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. The plan is subject to revision by federal lawmakers and budget writers and will take decades to complete, but it would mark a sea change for a federal agency criticized for years for substandard and delayed care for the nation’s veterans.

The VA’s Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission issued a report last month that got veterans buzzing about modernizations to facilities that many believe is overdue, including Dr. David Walker, the director of the VA Southeast Network.

“The average age of our facilities is over 50 years old in many cases,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Veterans in Georgia have complained to the VA and the AJC about the sad condition of many facilities they use to receive health care. And some problems have made headlines, such as the closing for months of surgical suites in the Atlanta hospital in Decatur in 2019 and early 2020. The Eagle’s Nest long-term care facility closed in 2020 because of an infestation of fire ants that could not be eradicated.

“Both of my kids, who were kickboxing and martial arts world champions, would visit the (Atlanta hospital) and perform for the vets who were there for surgeries or long term care. The smells and the surroundings were pathetic for my kids and myself,” said George Adams, a retired Army Ranger.

The AIR Commission report will go to Congress in January, which will be responsible for decisions about timing and funding. The proposal’s $56 billion price tag includes not only land, construction and equipment costs, but also operations expenses over 30 years. That is $3 billion more than the cost of maintaining the current infrastructure and operations over the same time period, but the grand rehabilitation is expected to provide a much improved level of service.

The report details a constellation of new or improved outpatient clinics in metro Atlanta, including, Gwinnett County and Fort McPherson, which would relieve some pressure from the main VA hospital on Clairmont Road.

Walker believes the Atlanta hospital is a high priority because it is one of the largest and serves one of the fastest-growing populations of veterans in the U.S.

The metro Atlanta district serves about 156,000 eligible veterans, a market study says. The Georgia veteran population is expected to grow more than 9% in the next decade. The Southeast Network is expected to host the third-largest population of veterans in the VA system in coming years.

Georgia veterans who have to travel to the Atlanta hospital have complained about the lack of parking and the difficulty of driving there. About 41% of Georgia veterans are 65 and older.

“It can take two hours to go 40 miles,” said James Yarbrough, who has to make the trip from Cherokee County.

If Congress adopts the proposal to replace the Atlanta hospital, it would likely be built in the same area. Walker said the hospital needs to maintain close links to Emory University and Morehouse School of Medicine, which partner with the agency.

But, he said, new and expanded facilities in Cobb, Gwinnett and elsewhere would lessen the need to drive to Atlanta. The plan proposes also large medical centers to be built in Gwinnett County and Macon, and a modernization of the medical center at Fort McPherson.

Big changes also are slated for outside metro Atlanta.

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The AIR Commission report calls for moving operations at the VA center in Dublin to a new Macon hospital. A new large outpatient clinic would be built in Dublin.

The proposal also calls for shutting down operations at the downtown Augusta hospital and modernizing and adding a new tower to the uptown hospital. It recommends multiple other renovations and rebuilds of local clinics and closing of others, across all three states.

The process could take decades to complete.

“But there are things we are already working on implementing, and we are not waiting on the AIR Commission,” Walker said.

Among them is the expected opening this year of the long-delayed 62,000-square-foot Cobb County outpatient clinic in northwest Marietta. The construction was initially delayed in 2019 because of a bidding problem, and later by issues related to the pandemic. The new Cobb clinic will offer services from audiology to X-rays.

When it opens, the smaller Northeast Cobb and South Cobb clinics will close. The West Cobb clinic will also eventually close. Staff will move to the new clinic, which is scheduled to have 246 full-time employees.

The VA plans 20 new long-term care beds at the Trinka Davis Veterans Village clinic in Carrollton and is expanding the Columbus VA Clinic, scheduled to finish this summer. The VA recently awarded a design contract for a new 30,000-square-foot clinic in Perry in middle Georgia.

Walker said the Southeast Network will soon start the process to expand the existing Gwinnett clinic, including a long-term care center, “regardless of the AIR Commission,” because of the demonstrated need and growth of the number of veterans in Georgia.

This story has been updated to correct the percentage of veterans who are older than 65 and to clarify the order of closing of Cobb County clinics.


Some proposals in the new VA plan in Georgia

  • Demolish and rebuild the Atlanta hospital.
  • Gwinnett County, build a new medical center and close the Henderson Mill Clinic.
  • Fort McPherson, modernize the medical center.
  • North DeKalb, close the clinic and move operations to the Arcadia clinic.
  • South Fulton, close the clinic and move operations to Fort McPherson.
  • Carrollton, modernize the clinic.
  • Augusta downtown, shut down operations and move to other nearby facilities.
  • Augusta uptown, modernize medical center and build a new tower.
  • Macon, build a new medical center.
  • Dublin medical center, move all operations to Macon.
  • Dublin, build a new clinic.
  • Baldwin, build a new clinic.

OUR REPORTING

The AJC has reported numerous stories detailing problems at VA facilities in Georgia, including overloaded phone systems and closed surgical suites at the Atlanta VA hospital in Decatur. A long-term care facility was also closed down because of the building’s deteriorating condition and an infestation of fire ants that could not be eradicated. The AJC learned from veterans in April of a new report proposing sweeping changes to modernize the system’s aging infrastructure in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.