Delayed care and long waits are behind the needless deaths of veterans at U.S. military hospitals, according to a recent report by CNN. One of the most troubling aspects of the report is that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs knew about the problems and did not act.

While many military hospitals across the country have been negligent, the problem is especially grim at the William Jennings Bryan Dorn Veterans Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina. Veterans waiting for basic gastrointestinal procedures, including colonoscopies or endoscopies, are dying because their cancers were not detected in time for treatment.

The VA has verified six deaths at Dorn due to delays. However, CNN reported that the number of veterans who have died or are dying because of the wait could be more than 20.

Hospital Knowledge of Problem

Through CNN’s investigation, it is clear the hospital was fully aware that needless deaths were resulting from the mounting waiting list and delayed care.

In a September 2013 report, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General evaluated the policies and practices related to gastroenterology procedures at Dorn. The document shows that in July 2011, the GI consult backlog included 2,500 delayed appointments, including 700 of a critical nature. In September 2011, the Veterans Integrated Service Network granted the hospital $1.2 million for free colonoscopies. But hospital administrators did not have a protocol for tracking and accountability at the time, and the backlog increased to 3,800 by December.

In late October 2012, the medical center’s administration teamed up with VA leaders to clear the backlog. However, while a comprehensive strategy was being generated, 280 patients were identified as having GI malignancies, including 52 whose malignancies were associated with a delay in diagnosis and treatment. Through May 2013, nine patients or their families had filed lawsuits due to the delays in care.

Veterans Falling Through the Cracks

Due to CNN’s investigation, the consequences of the hospital’s delays came to light. Relying on government documents, CNN found one story after another of veterans who suffered because of the hospital’s continual errors. One veteran had to wait nine months for a colonoscopy. By the time he got the surgery he needed, his cancer had reached stage 3.

Another patient, whom the hospital characterized as possibly having disease of the esophagus, was forced to wait four months for an appointment followed by 11 months for an endoscopy. At the time of this procedure, he found out he had later-stage esophageal cancer. An internal VA report stated that the disease would have been diagnosed sooner except for the delay.

Dr. Stephen Lloyd, a private physician who is a colonoscopy expert in Columbia, told CNN about a 63-year-old Vietnam veteran who had been told by physicians at Dorn that he didn’t need a colonoscopy. Lloyd found that the vet had four polyps, two of which were pre-cancerous. If Lloyd hadn’t performed a colonoscopy and removed the polyps, this patient could have had colon cancer.

The VA told CNN in a statement that it is “committed to providing the best quality, safe and effective health care our Veterans have earned and deserve. We take seriously any issue that occurs at one of the more than 1,700 health care facilities across the country. The consult delay at Dorn VAMC has been resolved.”

But both patients and staff at Dorn say veterans continue to endure delays in diagnoses and treatment that could to more deaths. Veterans who have been harmed by delays in diagnosis and treatment should understand the legal options available to them.

About the Author

Mark Joye is the Head of the Litigation Department at the Joye Law Firm. A Board-Certified Trial Advocate with nearly 30 years of litigation experience, he currently serves on the Board of Governors for the American Association for Justice and is a past president of the South Carolina Association for Justice. In a recent trial, Joye headed a trial team that secured $17 million for a family killed in a tractor-trailer accident.

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