Veterans Malpractice: Will More Money Help?

April 14, 2008 – Cleveland, OH: Families who have been adversely affected by Veterans medical malpractice and the often deplorable conditions at some VA hospitals, are hoping that new congressional funding for VA hospitals—the largest single infusion of cash in the 77-year-history of Veteran’s Affairs—will finally eradicate the crisis, and give veterans of all ages and stripes their due.

It has been a long time coming, as conditions at many VA hospitals worsen, and dubious medical practices resulted in the deaths, and injury of too many former soldiers.

The issue has been long running, and oft times disturbing. Stories abound, such as reports of ‘soiled’ medical devices and instruments used for rectal exams and biopsies of the prostate. In other words, instruments requiring thorough cleansing and disinfection between patients have not been duly cleaned. The mind shudders at such a mixing of blood, fecal matter and other bodily fluids suffered by veterans deserving of much, much better.

An ABC News Prime Time Thursday hidden camera report back in 2004 documented similar conditions. But it is the stories of patient care, or lack thereof that are the most heart wrenching, and ellicit much more anger than dirty bathrooms.

For example, the late Terry Soles is a story that has been likely repeated time and time again during the sorry track record of veteran’s hospitals, and the potential for malpractice.

A Vietnam vet, the strapping Soles checked into a VA hospital in Cleveland in 1998 complaining of diarrhea and pain. Doctors there removed small, cancerous growths from his stomach and esophagus.

However, as documented by ABC News April 8th of 2004, things only got worse for Soles. In attempting to get at the root of the problem, the VA hospital administered painful tests, only to lose the results. Soles’ wife Denise told a reporter that a parade of medical residents saw her late husband, but there was little consistency in his care.

VA hospitals have been criticized in the past for putting too great an emphasis on medical students. That point was driven home for Soles when, on the operating table and prepared for surgery; the operation was scrubbed when the doctors couldn’t decide what to do.

In the meantime, apparently unbeknownst to the VA doctors, cancer was continuing to ravage Soles’ body, which had dwindled from 200 pounds to 80. When he was so ill that he could no longer recognize even his own son, Soles was rushed to a private hospital, where qualified doctors made the quick, and correct diagnosis of widespread cancer. But by then, it was too late. Soles died three days later.

Defenders of VA hospitals have always pointed to a lack of funding—something that the Bush budget provision for 2008 will hopefully rectify. However, why has there been insufficient funds to hire more doctors, provide better conditions and better care for vets?

Some might suggests it is because the existing funding is going elsewhere. In the ABC news report of 2004, viewers were reminded about allegations of millions of dollars spent on office renovations, a nursing home unit that remained empty for two years, and tens of thousands of dollars for a fish tank in the lobby of a VA building in South Carolina.

Meanwhile, according to figures posted on the website, VA medical malpractice settlements appear to be steadily increasing. For the first half of 2006, the site identified 145 malpractice lawsuits totaling just a hair under $29 million dollars.

There are so many stories. Last year Walter Reed Army Medical Center was cited for various deficiencies that, it has been reported, have since been straightened out. At the time, however, life was grim for Jeremy Duncan. What he saw in Room # 205 at Walter Reed Building 18, was subsequently described in a February, 2007 edition of the Washington Post:

“Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan’s room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole.”

George Washington once said, “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceived veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation.”

Americans can only hope that new funding will help dispel the frustration that reportedly has become all too common at the nation’s VA hospitals, for far too long. One can assume, however, that such funds will only have the desired effect if the funding is properly managed, and wisely spent.

Meantime, as long as veterans of all ages and eras are sometimes improperly diagnosed and poorly cared for, veteran malpractice lawsuits will continue to be a fact of life.

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