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Watchdog: Accountability

Missed leukemia diagnosis by Veterans Affairs leaves vet who put his trust in doctors living 'day to day'

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Photo - Lucas Davis, who spend six years in the Army National Guard during the Vietnam era, found out in November that doctors could have seen warning signs of his leukemia six years before he was diagnosed. (Photo by Mark Black)
Lucas Davis, who spend six years in the Army National Guard during the Vietnam era, found out in November that doctors could have seen warning signs of his leukemia six years before he was diagnosed. (Photo by Mark Black)
Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs,Health Care,Accountability,Minusextra,Veterans,Vietnam War,Vietnam,Cancer

Lucas Davis thought he had already heard the worst by the time he met with a cancer specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs last November.

His leukemia had been diagnosed a month earlier, and was confirmed by two other doctors.

But as the oncologist reviewed the electronic medical records of Davis’ past treatment at VA, he discovered that elevated white blood cell counts six years earlier should have been a warning of the onset of the disease.

Faces of Delay

A five-part series by the Washington Examiner on some of the individual veterans who have suffered from poor care and long delays by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Part One: Delays, denials by VA deliver 'death sentence' to cancer victim

Part Two: A fatal level of trust in VA care

Part Three: Korean War veteran dies after VA hospital ignored his medical history, daughter says

Part Four: Treatment at a VA hospital nearly killed an agency whistleblower

Today: Missed leukemia diagnosis by VA leaves vet who put his trust in doctors living 'day to day'

Click here to see a summary of the series and find more resources

No one said anything to Davis at the time.

Maybe in 2007 he could have been more effectively treated.

Now, seven years later, he’s not so sure.

“I was kind of frightened,” Davis said of the missed diagnosis. “I wasn’t really angry.

“If they would have noticed sooner, they could have done something about it, is what they told me,” Davis said. “They said we wouldn’t be talking about this now. But anyway, they didn’t. So now I go from month to month.”

Davis spent six years in the Army National Guard during the Vietnam era, and, although he was not deployed overseas, he qualifies for VA medical benefits.

Seven years ago he lived in the Cincinnati area and got his medical care from the VA clinic in nearby Greendale, Ind.

Davis, 70, said he went to the Greendale clinic every year for his annual physical. Blood work was done, but he was never told of any serious medical conditions, he said.

After he retired as a factory worker in 1998, Davis and his wife, Regina, became snowbirds, living part of the year in central Florida.

They settled permanently in Port Charlotte, Fla., in January 2013. Davis wanted to establish himself as a patient in the VA medical center there, and called for an appointment with a primary care physician.

None was available.

Davis was put on a waiting list, given an identification number and a Web address where he could go to check the status of his appointment.

Months passed. The website never worked, he said, so finally he started calling to find out when he could get in to see the doctor.

By October 2013, Davis was tired of waiting on VA. He scheduled an exam with a private physician and had his annual physical there.

Blood tests revealed he had leukemia. That was a shock, Davis said. It was the first of many.

Davis was referred to a cancer specialist at a private medical center in the area, who confirmed the diagnosis. The treatment plan that was outlined required an upfront payment of $13,000, Regina Davis said.

Unable to afford the high cost of the private therapy, Davis turned to the VA.

With the diagnosis of leukemia in hand, Davis tried to get an appointment with a primary care doctor at the VA in Port Charlotte, a necessary step before a visit with an oncologist would be approved.

No appointments were available. That’s when Regina Davis “lost it.”

Lucas Davis and his wife, Regina, settled in Port Charlotte, Fla., in early 2013. Davis tried to get
an appointment at the VA medical center there, waiting months before finally scheduling
an exam with a private physician. (Photo by Mark Black)

She threatened to go to the media with the story about a veteran with a confirmed diagnosis of leukemia who could not get an appointment to see a VA doctor.

That threat changed things, and within two days an appointment became available.

The diagnosis of leukemia was again confirmed, and a couple of days later Davis met with his VA cancer specialist.

The oncologist looked at Davis’ electronic medical records documenting his prior treatment and test results at VA.

“That’s when he said, ‘You know you’ve had this for six years and they’ve overlooked it,'" Regina Davis said. “I went out in the hall and I about lost it.”

As to Davis’ prospects, Regina said, the doctor said that was unclear.

“He said it could be a day. It could be a week. We just don’t know,” she said.

Long waits for medical care are a festering problem at VA.

An investigation by the agency’s inspector general, triggered by congressional pressure, has confirmed the "systemic" use of falsified appointment logs nationwide to conceal delays veterans face when seeking treatment.

If they would have noticed sooner, they could have done something about it, is what they told me. They said we wouldn't be talking about this now.

The scandal over bogus waiting lists began in April after whistleblowers from Phoenix reported the practice to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. The IG is now investigating at least 92 VA medical facilities for similar practices.

The IG and the Government Accountability Office warned for a decade that VA administrators were using tricks to manipulate reported wait times, making it appear patients were being seen within agency deadlines.

Meeting those goals was a critical factor in performance reviews and bonuses paid to top administrators at VA medical facilities.Those performance goals and bonuses have since been scrapped.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in May and has been replaced. Top administrators now acknowledge the widespread falsification of patient records after years of denials.

For Davis, there is little left to do but wait. His doctors tell him they are optimistic that his leukemia can be treated with chemotherapy, but not until his white blood counts stabilize. That’s not happening, he said.

He does not ask whether his condition is terminal, and has nothing but praise for the treatment he is getting now from his VA oncologist.

“I think it's just the hand I’m dealt, I guess,” Davis said. “You’ve got to put your trust in doctors. The only time I really think about it is when I get quiet and I’m not doing anything, then it goes through my mind a lot.

"I try to stay upbeat. That’s about the only thing you can do. There’s no use getting beat down over it. You’ve got to live day to day. That’s what I do anymore.”

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