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Watchdog: Accountability

Death toll from Veterans Affairs delays, incompetence climbing

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Graphic by Monica Perez, Mark Flatten and Luke Rosiak Mark Tapscott,Watchdog,Veterans Affairs,Health Care,EXography,Accountability,Veterans,MinusRelatedPhoto,Suicide

Psychiatrist Dr. Margaret Moxness said she feared the worst but felt powerless because officials in the Huntington, W.Va., Department of Veterans Affairs treatment center where she worked turned a deaf ear to her warnings about delayed treatment.

She was counseling Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans struggling to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and had grown increasingly frustrated as patients she needed to see within 10 days were forced to wait months to schedule follow-up appointments after being prescribed powerful antidepressants.

By the time that you do the colonoscopies on these patients, you went from a stage 1 to a stage 4 cancer, which is basically inoperable.
 

“You're setting them up for problems if you don't monitor them early in the treatment,” she told Fox News on Monday.

“Their bodies heal before their emotions do, so now you have desperate, angry, depressed veterans that are activated. That’s where you get in trouble,” she said.

Moxness said she knew the problems were serious from her review of the cases of two veterans who committed suicide at the facility just prior to her arrival in 2008. She believes things didn't become even worse only because of the West Virginia facility's location.

“I was in a very tight-knit community where there was lots of extracurricular supports — family, faith, vet centers — so we had help, but no thanks to the VA, I’m sorry,” Moxness said.

The Fox News report was the latest in a rapidly lengthening list of examples of what appear to be horrendous examples of bureaucratic incompetence and malfeasance in the treatment of American military veterans.

The VA is the largest civilian department in the federal government, with an annual budget of more than $78 billion and a workforce of nearly 313,000 civil servants.

The department enjoys bipartisan political and public support but has struggled throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to keep up with growing demand for veterans benefits and medical services.

VA officials have been telling Congress and the media for the past decade that significant progress was being made in the department, but such claims have been exploded by recent revelations.

Earlier this year, VA officials conceded in a fact sheet distributed to journalists that 23 veterans had died nationwide as a result of delayed treatment.

But whistleblowers told the Arizona Republic that at least 40 veterans have died in recent years in the Phoenix VA facility.

As the scope of VA's problems widens, it's all but certain the death toll will climb further, perhaps much further as indicated by this estimate.

Just in the last week, multiple media reports have focused on veterans being forced to wait months on end for critically needed medical tests and other services.

The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday, for example, that the chief of psychiatry at VA's St. Louis Health Care System described VA performance data as “garbage -- it's designed to make the VA look good on paper. It's their ?everything is awesome' approach.”

Dr. Joseph Mathews, according to the Times, claimed “there's a “don't ask, don't tell” policy. Those who ask tough questions are punished, and the others know not to tell.” He received administrative discipline after alleging long wait times led to two preventable deaths.

The problems aren't limited to veterans suffering from PTSD. The Washington Examiner's Mark Flatten reported May 12 that thousands of South Texas veterans were forced to wait for a third bloody fecal stool screen before being scheduled for potentially life-saving colonoscopies.

“By the time that you do the colonoscopies on these patients, you went from a stage 1 to a stage 4 [colorectal cancer], which is basically inoperable,” VA whistleblower Dr. Richard Krugman told Flatten.

As many as 15,000 veterans may have been subjected to the delays that were mandated as cost-cutting measures at a brand-new VA facility in Harlingen, Texas. Krugman was forced out after raising objections to multiple problems there.

Early in April, the House Veterans Affairs Committee heard the sad testimony of 44-year-old Barry Coates, an Army veteran who sought treatment for severe abdominal pain and rectal bleeding in November 2010 at a VA hospital in Hartsville, S.C.

“The doctor recommended a colonoscopy to determine if his suffering resulted from early stages of colorectal cancer. For more than a year, Coates faced delay after delay, churning through one doctor after another until finally the routine medical test was performed in December 2011,” Flatten reported.

Coates got the worst possible news from the delayed test.

“It is likely too late for me,” Coates told the House panel. “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.”

The accompanying map plots the multiple locations in which VA facilities have been reported to have delayed tests, retaliated against whistleblowers calling attention to life-threatening bureaucratic policies and falsification of official data.

The Examiner will continue to update this graphic as new locations are discovered.

Mark Tapscott is executive editor of the Washington Examiner.

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