Vet to Congress: VA ‘Handed Me a Death Sentence’

‘An American disaster’

A group of U.S. Army veterans who took part in liberating Nazi death camps walk through the entrance gate of the former Nazi Death Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oswiecim, southern Poland, Thursday, April 19, 2012, as they take part in the annual March of the Living to commemorate Holocaust victims. Walking with the flag is Frederick Carrier, one of the U.S. soldiers who helped liberate Buchenwald. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)
April 10, 2014

When Barry Coates went to William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, S.C. seeking treatment for abdominal pain in 2010, the doctor recommended a colonoscopy.

The screening was delayed for more than a year; when he finally got the procedure done, the test revealed advanced colorectal cancer.

Coates told his story before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Wednesday during a hearing on delays at VA hospitals.

"It is likely too late for me," the 44-year-old Army veteran told the committee. "The gross negligence of my ongoing problems and crippling backlog epidemic of the VA medical system has not only handed me a death sentence, but ruined the quality of life I have for the meantime."

Coates is now is hobbled by a colostomy bag and catheter.

"I am not here today for me," Coates continued. "I am here to speak for those to come so that they might be spared the pain I have already endured and know that I have yet to face."

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been under scrutiny from outraged members of Congress after news investigations revealed 19 veterans died as a result of delayed cancer screenings.

Coates is one of 26 veterans at the Dorn VA Center who suffered because of delays, according to a report released Monday by the VA. Six of them died as a result of their delays.

"If this happened in the civilian world, where negligence was proven time and time again, we would be in the streets with signs saying shut them down. It’s an outrage is what it is. This is an American disaster," Rep. Jackie Walorski (R., Ind.) said at the hearing.

In response to the outrage, the VA is conducting a nationwide review of consulting practices at its facilities and hospitals. Overall, the VA report found a total of 76 veterans suffered serious harm as a result of delayed gastrointestinal cancer screenings. Of those, 23 died.

The report did not say when those deaths occurred, nor did it include preventable deaths from other conditions.

The VA had previously refused to release the names of the facilities where the "institutional disclosures of adverse events"—the bureaucratic phrase for mistakes that gravely injure or kill a patient—occurred.

"As a result of the consult delay issue VA discovered at two of our medical centers, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) continues to conduct a national review of consults across the system," the VA said in its report. "We have redesigned the consult process to better monitor consult timeliness. We continue to take action to strengthen oversight mechanisms and prevent a similar delay at other VA medical centers. We take any issue of this nature extremely seriously and offer our sincerest condolences to families and individuals who have been affected and lost a loved one."

However, Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Jeff Miller (R., Fla.) said the VA’s disclosures were inadequate and called VA officials’ testimony "ridiculous."

"It concerns me that my staff has been asking for further details on the deaths that occurred as a result of delays in care at VA medical facilities for months, and only two days before this hearing did the VA provide the information we have been asking for," Miller said.

Miller said his committee has evidence of as many as 40 patient deaths due to delayed care at the VA hospital in Phoenix alone.