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.

• Another veteran had to wait nine months for a colonoscopy -- "a significant delay," according to VA records, that "would have impacted the stage at which he was diagnosed." The record indicates that by the time this veteran had surgery, his cancer was at stage 3.

• Still another patient recommended for possible disease of the esophagus had to wait four months for an appointment and 11 months for an endoscopy, at which time he learned that he had later-stage esophageal cancer. The internal VA report says that without the delay, "his cancer would have been diagnosed much earlier." And though the report doesn't not say whether the veteran died, it does say that an earlier screening would have provided earlier detection "with better survival."

• In July 2011, a hospital physician sent a warning to administrators that the backlog for Dorn patients' gastrointestinal appointments had reached 2,500, and patients were waiting eight months -- until February 2012 -- for appointments.

• By December 2011, the documents show, the backlog at Dorn had grown to 3,800 patients, according to another warning e-mail from a physician.

Little was done to effectively resolve the problems, according to expert sources and documents.

In September 2013, the VA's inspector general affirmed details of the delays at Dorn in stark language, stating that 700 of the delays for appointments or care were "critical."

Perhaps most troubling of all is that the problem at the Dorn facility had been identified, and taxpayer money was given to fix the problem in September 2011.

"We appropriated a million dollars (to Dorn) because VA asked for it," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

The documents obtained by CNN show that only a third of that $1 million from Congress was used for its intended purpose at Dorn: to pay for care for veterans on a waiting list.

The VA "will say, 'we redirected those dollars to go somewhere it was needed,' " Miller said. "Where would it be more needed than to prevent the deaths of veterans?"

At the same time, the documents show, the waiting list at Dorn kept growing to 3,800 patients in December 2011.

"These are real people that we're talking about, that are being harmed -- either made sick, will be sick in the future or have died," Miller said.

Documents and interviews show that the problem goes beyond delayed colonoscopies and other gastrointestinal procedures at Dorn.

CNN has learned from documents and interviews that other VA facilities have been under scrutiny by officials over possible delays in treatment or diagnoses.

Shortly before CNN published this report, the VA acknowledged that there have been concerns about delay of care at some of its facilities.

At the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia, the VA said three veterans died as a result of delayed care. Internal documents at that facility showed a waiting list of 4,500 patients.

The VA also acknowledged that it investigated delays at facilities in Atlanta, North Texas and Jackson, Mississippi. The VA said no "adverse outcomes" because of delays were found at the VA centers in Texas and Mississippi.