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VA medical centers remain targets, including one in Salem

Patients, employees carry out attacks but public could be source of threats, too

ROANOKE – Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers including in the one in Salem, remain the target of violence and threats, according to a new report 10 News obtained.

Veterans' facilities are the target of bomb threats and other violent attacks. In 2015, a psychologist was killed working at a VA medical clinic.

"The 9 million veterans that the VA serves every year have been through a lot. Many of them have mental challenges. Many of them have substance abuse problems and another thing we hear from VA is these individuals, many of them, have been taught how to use firearms and they're comfortable with firearms so they pose an additional kind of challenge," said Lori Rectanus, the U.S. Government Accountability Office's Physical Infrastructure Team director.

She says over the last five years patents and employees have carried out attacks but it's not unreasonable to expect that the public could be the source of threats as well.

The Salem VA Medical Center and the community based outpatient clinics in Danville, Lynchburg and Wytheville all treat veterans.

But a new GAO report 10 News obtained says the Department of Veterans Affairs needs to review and revise its risk management policies, and develop an oversight strategy to assess the effectiveness of risk management programs.

"You have two situations. You have a facility that may not be implementing the necessary measures which might be putting folks there at risk, or you might have a facility that is doing more than they need to and potentially be spending money on security measures where they might want to spend it somewhere else," said Rectanus.

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There are eight categories of threats VA police are supposed to review as part of vulnerability assessments, including assault, physical threats of violence and illegal weapons.

While the GAO report is not based off any visits to Virginia VA medical centers, 10 News investigations have uncovered a pattern of security issues at the Salem VA. In 2015, we found more than a million dollars of taxpayer money earmarked for security upgrades that were never completely put in place.

One project would allow the more than 80 buildings on the campus to be locked or opened with the push of a button. Previously it had to be done by hand, taking more than 30 minutes and a lot of man power. But our investigation found there were problems that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix and the system still isn't working today.

We exposed what VA Medical Center Police Chief Dale Hendley was telling his officers at the time.

"None of our motion intrusion is working. All 28 devices are down. You guys should have been told about that some time ago," said Hendley in the meeting with officers.

Now, the Salem VA director says they can lock down the entire campus in 10 minutes and they are hoping to get money this year to finish up the project that was started four years ago.

The GAO report says the VA police force plays a vital role in protecting veterans but they found staffing varied. Policy sets a minimum number of officers. But recruiting and retaining police can be challenging.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has agreed with the issues highlighted in this report and will be making changes.

The Salem VA Medical Center says it uses panic alarms, motion detectors and security cameras to keep everyone safe.

Now, they will wait to see if any other measures need to be put into place because of this report.

"Salem VA Medical Center can lock down the entire facility within 10 minutes manually with our current system. As the GAO report states, there are no requirements or policies requiring the facility to lock down remotely. However, we are hoping to receive funding in FY18 to finalize the automatic lockdown system. Until then, we will continue with our current security measures that have been in place to ensure a safe and secure environment for our patients, employees, and visitors," Salem VA Medical Center Director Rebecca Stackhouse said in an emailed statement.


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