Lawmakers want to know why Veterans Affairs officials did not react quicker to ant-infested conditions at a department-run community center in Georgia, the latest in a series of health scandals at regional veterans care facilities.
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he was “ shocked, horrified and downright maddened” by reports that one dying veteran was bitten more than 100 times by the insects before staff at the Eagle’s Nest Community Living Center near Atlanta made any changes. At least two other patients there also suffered bites from the ants.
“This patient, at the end of his life, was clearly not being monitored closely enough,” Isakson said. “I am so sad for his family who had to discover his insect-infested conditions before anything was reportedly done.”
The story was first reported by WSB-TV Channel 2 in Georgia earlier this week. Family members of Joel Marrable, an Air Force veteran battling cancer, said they discovered the bites during a visit with Marrable and received nonchalant responses from staff when they reported the problem.
After more complaints, he was eventually moved to a different room, the family told the news station. Marrable passed away earlier this week, due to complications from cancer and not as a result of the ant bites.
Isakson blasted local and national VA officials for not informing lawmakers of the problem “until just hours before the news broke” in local media. He also promised to make sure “that those who allowed these conditions to persist be held accountable to the fullest extent.”
The news comes amid a series of high-profile, unsettling medical problems at VA hospitals in recent weeks.
Last month, a former VA pathologist in Arkansas was charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of former patients. Robert Morris Levy also faces numerous counts of fraud and abuse related to mishandled medical reports.
Prosecutors have said Levy was frequently drunk while on duty, and had been disciplined in the past for substance abuse. Lawmakers have questioned why he was allowed to continue working despite warning signs. At least 15 VA deaths have been connected to mistakes made by Levy.
Two weeks ago, federal investigators confirmed they are looking into a series of suspicious deaths at a Veterans Affairs hospital in West Virginia after a military autopsy suggested at least one patient was murdered by a former physician there. VA officials have said the case does not involve any current employees, and no further details on the suspect have been released.
Days after that news became public, officials announced they had opened an investigation into a series of sexual assault claims at a separate West Virginia medical center. Leadership at the Beckley VA Medical Center said the employee involved in the case has been fired, and staff is cooperating with the investigation.
On Tuesday, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., announced plans for a hearing later this fall to address physician hiring and credentialing within VA, to ensure that problems with those actions have not contributed to the recent scandals.
“The shocking reports from West Virginia and Arkansas call into question whether VA is equipped to identify clinicians who are negligent, abusive, or commit criminal acts, and prevent them from practicing,” he said in a statement.
Ahead of the Atlanta infestation reports, Isakson said he has not planned any similar hearing for his committee, but said he would reconsider that stance if information about systemic problems arise.
He said department officials, including VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, have been giving committee members regular updates on the West Virginia and Arkansas problems, and that lawmakers did not want to interfere with ongoing criminal investigations.
In a statement to WSB-TV Channel 2, officials at the Atlanta VA Health Care System said that the ant-infested convalescent care center is undergoing a full cleaning, and staff is performing additional visits to check on veterans’ well-being.
In all of the cases, VA officials have said their employees are cooperating with investigators and pledged to improve patient care practices as problems are identified.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.