Military veterans are dying needlessly because of long waits and delayed care at U.S. veterans hospitals, a CNN investigation has found. What’s worse, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is aware of the problems and has done almost nothing to effectively prevent veterans dying from delays in care, according to interviews with numerous experts.
The problem has been especially dire at the Williams Jennings Bryan Dorn Veterans Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina. There, veterans waiting months for simple gastrointestinal procedures — such as a colonoscopy or endoscopy — have been dying because their cancers aren’t caught in time. The VA has confirmed six deaths at Dorn tied to delays. But sources close to the investigation say the number of veterans dead or dying of cancer because they had to wait too long for diagnosis or treatment at this facility could be more than 20.
“It’s very sad because people died,” said Dr. Stephen Lloyd, a private physician specializing in colonoscopies in Columbia. Lloyd and other physicians across South Carolina’s capital city are being affected by the delays at Dorn as veterans seek treatment or diagnoses outside the VA hospital.Lloyd is one of the few doctors in the area willing to speak on the record about the situation at Dorn.
“(Veterans) paid the ultimate price,” he said. “People that had appointments had their appointments canceled and rescheduled much later. … In some cases, that made an impact where they went into a later stage (of illness) and, therefore, lost the battle to live.”
Oneal Sessions, a 63-year-old Vietnam veteran, said he was told by staff members at Dorn Medical Center this year that he didn’t need a colonoscopy. Instead, he said, they gave him a routine test that would show whether he had polyps that are cancerous or in danger of becoming cancerous. Sessions said the VA told him to return in several years, but he ignored that advice and had a colonoscopy in the office of his private physician, Lloyd. In that procedure, Lloyd found and removed four polyps. Two of those polyps were pre-cancerous, the physician said. Had Sessions waited another few years, Lloyd said, he could have had colon cancer.
“There is a little problem that the VA had,” Sessions said. “My feeling is, the VA is not doing their ‘pre-stuff’ that they should do to protect the veterans.” What happened at the Dorn hospital, however, was not just an oversight by the hospital.
Little was done to effectively resolve the problems, according to expert sources and documents.
In September 2013, the VA’s inspector general affirmed details of the delays at Dorn in stark language, stating that 700 of the delays for appointments or care were “critical.” Perhaps most troubling of all is that the problem at the Dorn facility had been identified, and taxpayer money was given to fix the problem in September 2011.
“We appropriated a million dollars (to Dorn) because VA asked for it,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
Documents obtained show that only a third of that $1 million from Congress was used for its intended purpose at Dorn: to pay for care for veterans on a waiting list. The VA “will say, ‘we redirected those dollars to go somewhere it was needed,’ ” Miller said. ”Where would it be more needed than to prevent the deaths of veterans? These are real people that we’re talking about, that are being harmed — either made sick, will be sick in the future or have died.”
Documents and interviews show that the problem goes beyond delayed colonoscopies and other gastrointestinal procedures at Dorn. At the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia, the VA said three veterans died as a result of delayed care. Internal documents at that facility showed a waiting list of 4,500 patients.
The VA also acknowledged that it investigated delays at facilities in Atlanta, North Texas and Jackson, Mississippi. The VA said no “adverse outcomes” because of delays were found at the VA centers in Texas and Mississippi. One thing is for sure, though: veterans are dying because of delays from the hospitals, and nothing is going to change if consequences are not put in place.