A freshman congresswoman broke into tears this morning after an Army veteran testified that he is dying of terminal cancer because doctors at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in South Carolina failed to perform a routine colonoscopy when he had blood in his stool.
“I don’t know how they sleep at night. I really don’t,” said U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Indiana, whose father, Air Force veteran Ray Walorski, died of colon cancer in 2007.
An hour later, the VA’s representative, Thomas Lynch, assistant deputy undersecretary for health clinical operations, was called to testify on what lawmakers have called unacceptable delays and preventable deaths at VA medical centers. He agreed that the treatment veteran Barry Coates received was unacceptable.
“I am angry as well,” Lynch said. “I share your anger.”
Today’s hearing, the latest in a series held by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs focused on preventable deaths, comes less than a week after The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed the full scope of the problem.
In the decade after 9/11, CIR found, the VA made more than $200 million in wrongful death payments to the survivors of nearly 1,000 veterans who died while under the agency’s care.
The cases ranged from Iraq War veterans who shot or hanged themselves after being turned away from mental health treatment, to Vietnam veterans whose cancerous tumors were identified but allowed to grow, to missed diagnoses, botched surgeries and fatal neglect of elderly veterans.
Throughout the hearing, members of Congress expressed frustration with long delays veterans face in obtaining medical care from the agency that is supposed to help them recover from war.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, cited a recent inspector general’s report that found the agency failed to schedule timely medical appointments at the VA’s El Paso hospital 82 percent of the time. As a result, he said, many veterans simply give up and forgo treatment.
The committee chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said he recently became aware of as many as 40 patient deaths related to delays in care at the Phoenix VA, though he provided no proof for the allegation. Lynch said he would look into the situation.
John Daigh, the VA’s assistant inspector general for health care inspections, told the committee that he thought delays occurred because the VA failed to “focus on its core mission to deliver quality health care.”
Daigh said critical care positions often remained unfilled while administrators hired researchers and worked to manage VA facilities’ dual function as teaching hospitals.
Lynch defended the research focus, saying VA researchers recently discovered new treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder and new ways to identify traumatic brain injury – two signature injuries of the Iraq War.
Members of the House panel were especially interested in 20 recent deaths, identified by local media and the VA’s own inspector general. They include six veterans who died of Legionnaires’ disease at the VA in Pittsburgh and a veteran who committed suicide at the Atlanta VA during a federal probe into mismanagement at the hospital.
Members of Congress wanted to know if any hospital staff or agency leaders had been disciplined or fired in the wake of the deaths.
Although the same question had been posed at two earlier hearings, Lynch said he still couldn’t answer. And he questioned its premise.
“I can’t answer that specifically. I don’t have the information. If I did, I would share it with you,” he said, adding, “I am troubled a little bit by whether or not firing somebody is necessarily the answer.”
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.