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Possible VA failures magnify families' grief

May. 19, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Navy veteran Dennis Richardson, who served during the Vietnam War, died of liver cancer in November 2012. His family said officials with the Phoenix VA Health Care system repeatedly delayed his care while the cancer ravaged his body.
Navy veteran Dennis Richardson, who served during the Vietnam War, died of liver cancer in November 2012. His family said officials with the Phoenix VA Health Care system repeatedly delayed his care while the cancer ravaged his body. (Richardson family)
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Former Army assault helicopter pilot Mel Allen waited seven months for a VA referral for bladder cancer surgery, his wife said. He died March 14 at age 64. (Allen family)

Darrell Richardson doesn’t know how long his brother, Dennis, may have lived if he had received faster treatment from the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system.

But he’s sure that Dennis’ final months would have been more comfortable and more hopeful if the VA had been more helpful.

“They just kept telling him he had to wait his turn,” Richardson said. “But his liver cancer was moving too fast. His pain was too intense.”

The decorated Navy Vietnam veteran died in November 2012 at age 65, three months after requesting an appointment at the Phoenix facilities and four months before the next available clinical opening. When his family finally took him to the emergency room after weeks of agonizing pain, doctors found it was too late to effectively treat him.

Darrell Richardson is among dozens of family members in Arizona — and now, across the country — wondering if lapses in VA scheduling for health care may have contributed to their loved ones’ deaths. But instead of answers, they’re caught in the larger political fight of who to blame and how to fix the system.

Whistleblowers have alleged that top Phoenix officials altered medical appointment wait times in an effort to hide problems in the health care system, and that the resulting care delays may have contributed to the deaths of 40 veteran patients. Officials in seven other cities are suspected of similar system gaming.

While lawmakers and VA officials spar over the path ahead, family members who may have been affected have received little information about exactly what happened. A VA Inspector General report on the problem isn’t expected to be completed until August.

Many are starting to worry they’ll never know exactly what went wrong — or how to ensure other families don’t suffer the same fate.

Preventable deaths

Debra Allen’s husband, Mel, served proudly as an Army pilot in Vietnam with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company and worked successfully in commercial construction before he fell ill in 2010. After seeing several civilian physicians for his malaise, he went to a VA medical center in northern Arizona in 2011, where he was diagnosed with bladder cancer.

He was told he needed surgery. But after moving into the Phoenix VA Health System, he was left waiting seven months for a referral.

By then it was too late; the cancer had spread throughout his pelvis and lymph nodes.

“They knew it was time-sensitive and they brushed it off,” his wife said. “I wanted to call and complain, but Mel was worried that if he rocked the boat, they wouldn’t treat him.”

He died March 14 at age 64. Debra Allen believes that a paper system, lost consults and an alleged off-the-books waiting list contributed to his death.

“My husband, 39 others and maybe more lost their lives because people wanted to protect their jobs and earn their bonuses? It’s adding insult to injury. No, it’s adding insult to death,” Allen said.

Growing frustration

On May 13, officials with the American Legion held a town hall meeting with families in Phoenix to hear their concerns about the ongoing investigation. Dozens of veterans and loved ones packed into the group’s downtown headquarters to vent their frustrations and urge a quicker response from VA leaders.

Among them was Debbie Valle, whose husband, Cecil, died April 4 from prostate cancer complications.

She told the crowd that Phoenix VA officials diagnosed the illness in 2010, but lengthy waits between appointments and a misdiagnosis of arthritis allowed the cancer to spread throughout her husband’s body. By the time they caught the problems early this year, the only option left was hospice care.

That mirrors the problems faced by Richardson’s brother, who trusted that VA officials wouldn’t delay medical appointments if his condition was quickly deteriorating. Physicians in Wisconsin had warned that aggressive treatment was necessary, but his brother was still given a seven-month wait for an appointment after he moved to Arizona.

“We found out later that one of the best liver cancer programs is in the Houston VA system,” Richardson said. “All it would have taken was a referral to get him over there. But we couldn’t get that.”

He and his brother’s family have been reliving the anguish of his death since the Phoenix problems have become national news.

Richardson’s niece attended the recent town hall meeting in Phoenix and said that after hearing the first few people speak, “she started crying, which then quickly turned to anger,” he said. “It has opened wounds that we feel powerless to do anything about.”

Awaiting answers

VA and White House officials have promised reform and punishment once the inspector general’s investigation is complete, and said they are working to reassure veterans that the department’s health care systems are working to restore patients’ trust.

So far, the VA IG has offered no details to families who may have been affected by care delays.

On May 15, in testimony before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, IG officials said work so far has not uncovered any direct links between care delays and patient deaths. But they are expected to comb through thousands of files in coming weeks to look for additional problems.

Lawmakers have said the allegations of mismanagement and deceptive record keeping are enough to force major reforms throughout the department. Allen said she thinks leaders at the Phoenix facility need to go, and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki with them if he knew anything about the problems.

“Even if he didn’t know, he needs to keep his eye on the ball a lot better than he did in the past,” she said.

Richardson isn’t sure what should happen next. He just knows he’s frustrated and exhausted.

“I’ve gone through all the stages of grief again, but I can’t get past the anger stage,” he said. “You just never get rid of that.”

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