VA hospitals paid millions in wrongful-death claims in post-9/11 decade

By MARTHA QUILLIN | The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) | Published: April 8, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. — The four Veterans Affairs Medical Centers in North Carolina settled 29 wrongful death cases worth $4.75 million in the decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to a new report from the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting.

The North Carolina cases were among nearly 1,000 nationwide, with a total payout of more than $200 million, the center identified through information obtained from the VA through the Freedom of Information Act.

In a single wrongful-death settlement, originating at the Fayetteville VA facility, the agency paid out $750,000.

The veteran whose beneficiary received three-quarters of a million dollars for the lapse in care in Fayetteville was identified only by a case number, 44718. His or her death was caused by the VA’s “failure to diagnose,” meaning a conclusion that the patient had no disease or condition, the records showed. The case originated on May 6, 2005, and was closed on Feb. 5, 2007.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) cares deeply for every Veteran we are privileged to serve,” Dr. Mark Shelhorse, chief medical officer for the Mid-Atlantic Health Care Network, said via email. “Our goal is to provide the best quality, safe and effective health care our Veterans have earned and deserve. We take seriously any issue that occurs in any of our facilities.”

A VA representative told the California-based investigative research group that while any “adverse incident” for a veteran under care was too many, the wrongful deaths made up a small percentage of the 6 million vets who seek care from the VA every year.

Most claims of malpractice against the VA, including wrongful death, don’t make it to court, where the details would be more public. Families who believe a loved one died as a result of malpractice at the VA must begin by going through an administrative process within the agency, which can take years.

In North Carolina, those claims are processed through a VA regional office in Winston-Salem.

The VA has four hospitals in North Carolina, located in Durham, Fayetteville, Salisbury and Asheville. The busiest, in Durham, had the most wrongful death settlements, 11, during the period covered by the FOIA requests. The VA paid out nearly $1.49 million in settlements in those cases. The hospital opened in 1953 and is available to serve more than 200,000 veterans in a 26-county area in central and Eastern North Carolina.

The three largest single payouts in the state were made in claims at the Fayetteville VA Medical Center. That hospital was opened in 1940 and is available to serve more than 157,000 veterans from 21 counties in North and South Carolina, according to the VA. During the decade surveyed, the VA settled eight wrongful death claims at the facility, including one for $750,000, one for $350,000 and another for $345,000.

The Asheville VA Medical Center settled six wrongful death cases during the period, worth $645,000 total.

During the same period, the Salisbury VA Medical Center paid $475,000 to settle four wrongful death cases during the period.

The center’s report includes an interactive map with links to all the VA Medical Centers in the country and skeletal information about each case: the date the claim was filed, the date it was closed, the type of malpractice involved and the amount paid to the family. It does not include names of patients or their families, or descriptions of what happened before the service members died.

In the past decade, the VA has been inundated – and at times overwhelmed – by the demand for its services. Even as World War II veterans are rapidly dying off, the VA has begun to care for more veterans who served in subsequent conflicts and during the intervening peacetime years.

Nearly anyone who served in the military and was honorably discharged is eligible for VA care, whether they served during times of conflict or peace. Veterans can receive hospital and outpatient care for any ailment, regardless of whether it’s service connected, though they may have to pay a copayment for treatment of issues not considered connected to their service. Veterans can be treated at the VA even if they have private insurance.

The VA has come under intense scrutiny as it has struggled at times to provide adequate care in some of its facilities. Congress has had to give the agency additional money to renovate hospitals and hire more medical staff and claims processors. Still, veterans have complained of long delays in getting treatment and disability rankings and payments.

The CIR’s report was timed to come out just ahead of a hearing planned for Wednesday before the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, at which VA officials will answer questions in the continuing assessment of preventable deaths and delays in medical care.

Cole Goins, a CIR reporter who worked on the project, said the team could not say how the number of wrongful death settlements at VA hospitals would compare with private hospitals, which are not required to release information about such settlements.

He said the number of cases settled by the VA likely would have been higher if the process of making a claim against the agency were quicker and less cumbersome.

If the VA denies a family’s claim, the family can appeal the case in federal court.

Goins said reporters were able to find a handful of cases that had made their way to court and talk to the families about their claims.

In one case, the CIR reported, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and a history of drug dependency was found dead on the floor of his room at a VA hospital in Los Angeles after doctors gave him a 30-day supply of anti-anxiety medication and a 15-day supply of methadone.

The reporters said they also found cases of Iraq War veterans who had shot or hanged themselves after being turned away from mental health treatment at the VA, and Vietnam veterans with cancerous tumors that had been identified but allowed to grow.


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