ATLANTA - Several mental health clinics serving Georgia veterans had significantly high patient wait times over the last fiscal year and were slow to respond to the problem, according to a federal report issued Tuesday.
Investigators from the Department of Veterans Affairs wrote that some patients on electronic waiting lists were hospitalized or taken to the emergency room after suicide attempts. However, the agency stopped short of weighing in on whether those veterans tried to harm themselves because they were waitlisted, or if the events would still have happened during the course of regular treatment.
The report by the VA Inspector General's Office of Healthcare Inspections was prompted by a January 2010 complaint that alleged inadequate management of the electronic waiting list for the clinics, which are part of the Atlanta VA Medical Center.
The agency also found that fiscal year 2010 funds were inappropriately used to pay a contractor's expenses for the previous fiscal year. The inspector general's office recommended that the facility take actions to prevent such situations from occurring again.
A spokesman with the Atlanta VA Medical Center did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the report.
The report notes that the facility has since provided resources to address the concerns raised, and says the report refers only to initial clinic evaluations and didn't measure ongoing care.
According to VHA guidelines, patients on the electronic wait list "must receive an initial evaluation within 24 hours, and a more comprehensive diagnostic and treatment planning evaluation within 14 days." New patients include anyone not seen by a qualifying provider in a specific clinic within the previous 24 months.
The confidential complaint alleged that a high number of patients were on various mental health clinic electronic waiting lists and that facility management were aware of a potential risk to patients and took no actions to resolve the issue.
The inspector general's office conducted site visits over several weeks to investigate the allegations. According to the report, several factors contributed to the medical center's inability to meet the growing demand for mental health services, including the cost of contracting for inpatient hospitalization and the lack of mental health clinic capacity to manage outpatients.
According to the report, the facility has added patients for the past two fiscal years and the number of patients waiting more than 30 days for appointments in the facility's top 50 clinics rose from 0.6 percent to about 4.5 percent between October 2009 and May 2010. The mental health workload has increased 17 percent since 2008.
The Atlanta VA Medical Center is located on 26 acres in Decatur, Ga. The facility is a teaching hospital and provides medical, surgical, geriatric and mental health services on an inpatient and outpatient basis. It serves about 453,000 veterans in 48 Georgia counties.