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Hospital delays are killing America's war veterans

By Scott Bronstein, Nelli Black and Drew Griffin CNN Investigations | 11/20/2013, 12:19 p.m.
Military veterans are dying needlessly because of long waits and delayed care at U.S. veterans hospitals, a CNN investigation has ...
Military veterans are dying needlessly because of long waits and delayed care at U.S. veterans hospitals, a CNN investigation has found. What's worse, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is aware of the problems and has done almost nothing to effectively prevent veterans dying from delays in care, according to documents obtained by CNN and interviews with numerous experts. Photo courtesy of CNN.

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- Military veterans are dying needlessly because of long waits and delayed care at U.S. veterans hospitals, a CNN investigation has found.

What's worse, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is aware of the problems and has done almost nothing to effectively prevent veterans dying from delays in care, according to documents obtained by CNN and interviews with numerous experts.

The problem has been especially dire at the Williams Jennings Bryan Dorn Veterans Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina. There, veterans waiting months for simple gastrointestinal procedures -- such as a colonoscopy or endoscopy -- have been dying because their cancers aren't caught in time.

The VA has confirmed six deaths at Dorn tied to delays. But sources close to the investigation say the number of veterans dead or dying of cancer because they had to wait too long for diagnosis or treatment at this facility could be more than 20.

"It's very sad, because people died," said Dr. Stephen Lloyd, a private physician specializing in colonoscopies in Columbia.

Lloyd and other physicians across South Carolina's capital city are being affected by the delays at Dorn as veterans seek treatment or diagnoses outside the VA hospital.

Lloyd is one of the few doctors in the area willing to speak on the record about the situation at Dorn.

"(Veterans) paid the ultimate price," he said. "People that had appointments had their appointments canceled and rescheduled much later. ... In some cases, that made an impact where they went into a later stage (of illness) and therefore lost the battle to live."

Oneal Sessions, a 63-year-old Vietnam veteran, said he was told by staff members at Dorn Medical Center this year that he didn't need a colonoscopy. Instead, he said, they gave him a routine test that would show whether he had polyps that are cancerous or in danger of becoming cancerous.

Sessions said the VA told him to return in several years.

But he ignored that advice and had a colonoscopy in the office of his private physician, Lloyd. In that procedure, Lloyd found and removed four polyps. Two of those polyps were pre-cancerous, the physician said.

Had Sessions waited another few years, Lloyd said, he could have had colon cancer.

"There is a little problem that the VA had," Sessions said. "My feeling is, the VA is not doing their 'pre-stuff' that they should do to protect the veterans."

What happened at the Dorn hospital, however, was not just an oversight by the hospital. Government documents obtained exclusively by CNN and not made public show that the hospital knew that its growing waiting list and delays in care were having deadly consequences.

Medical investigators reviewed the cases of 280 gastrointestinal cancer patients at Dorn and found that 52 were "associated with a delay in diagnosis and treatment."

The government documents CNN obtained illustrate just how bad delays at Dorn got:

• In May 2011, a patient was brought into the emergency room needing urgent care after suffering multiple delays, and the documents state "that was the facility's first realization that patients were 'falling through the cracks.' "