The Department of Veterans Affairs took swift action Tuesday in a scandal over a patient who suffered more than 100 ant bites while he lay dying at an Atlanta VA nursing home, placing the regional leader, chief medical officer and seven staff members on administrative leave while launching an investigation.
VA leaders said Tuesday they have put Network Director Leslie Wiggins on leave and reassigned Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ajay Dhawam to other duties, pending a review of quality and safety issues. They also have convened an administrative investigation board to look into how the Atlanta VA Medical Center handled the issue, which involved a resident at the Eagles' Nest Community Living Center on the hospital campus.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told Military.com on Tuesday that the department had failed the patient, Air Force veteran Joel Marrable, as well as his family.
"[This is] about basic humanity and dignity. I don't care what steps were taken to address the issues. We did not treat a vet with the dignity that he and his family deserved," Wilkie said.
Last week, Laquna Ross told WSB-Atlanta that her father was covered with inflamed, red bumps when she visited him at the nursing home the week before his death.
She was told that the staff checked on him and thought he "wasn't even alive, because the ants were all over him."
"His room had ants, the ceiling, the walls, the beds. They were everywhere," Ross said.
The room was cleaned, but staff could not eradicate the ants. Marrable, who had cancer and was dying, was moved to a different room. He died Sept. 14.
"If it didn't promote his body to die quicker, what is the protocol within the VA just to manage when something like this happens?" Ross told the television station.
The Atlanta VA Health Care System issued a statement saying the staff took immediate action to ensure that no other residents were affected. They stripped beds and rooms, removed open containers of food from living quarters and brought in a private pest control company for an independent assessment, as well as a regional pest control expert from the VA to assess the issue.
"We would like to express our heartfelt remorse and apology to the veterans' families and have reached out to them to offer appropriate assistance," officials said in their statement.
But during an interview Tuesday morning, Wilkie said it was not enough.
"We will be making an announcement on this," he promised.
In addition to the staff reliefs, the department will realign its Office of Network Support, a VA Central Office-based organization that had been responsible for collecting and disseminating reports on incidents to Veterans Health Administration leadership and will retrain VA personnel involved in reporting urgent issues through the chain of command.
"What happened at Eagles' Nest was unacceptable, and we want to ensure that veterans and families know we are determined to restore their trust in the facility," VHA Executive in Charge Dr. Richard Stone said. "Transparency and accountability are key principles at VA, and they will guide our efforts in this regard."
After the news broke, members of Congress expressed their horror at the incident and lambasted VA leadership for failing to notify members of the problem. Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee who represents Georgia, said he was "so sad for his family who had to discover his insect-infested conditions before anything was reportedly done."
"I am shocked, horrified and downright maddened by the news that a veteran under the care of the VA was treated so poorly and without regard for his well-being," Isakson said.
During the investigation, VA Medical Center Director Scott Isaacks will serve as regional director.