VA hospital in Georgia apologizes for deaths after delayed care
By Nelli Black and Scott Bronstein CNN Investigations | 11/24/2013, 4:17 p.m.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The director of the VA hospital in Augusta, Georgia, has publicly apologized for the deaths of three veterans at the facility that were caused by delays in care.
The rare public apology from an official at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was prompted by a CNN exclusive investigation on Tuesday that detailed the deaths at the Augusta facility, and also other deaths and delays at other VA hospitals.
"All of us at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center are deeply saddened by the loss of any veteran at our facility, " said director Robert Hamilton. "We offer our sincerest condolences to veterans affected by delays in GI care and families who have lost a loved one."
The CNN investigation revealed that military veterans are dying needlessly because of long waits and delayed care at U.S. veterans hospitals.
The investigation found that the situation 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 confirmed to CNN that there have been six deaths at the Dorn facility tied to delays. But sources close to the investigation there told CNN the number of veterans dead or dying of cancer because they had to wait too long for diagnosis or treatment at that facility could be more than 20.
CNN 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 its report Tuesday, the VA acknowledged that there have been concerns about delay of care at some of its other facilities.
At the Augusta medical center, the VA confirmed Tuesday to CNN that 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 Tuesday that it investigated delays at facilities in Atlanta, northern Texas and Jackson, Mississippi. The VA said no "adverse outcomes" because of delays were found at the centers in Texas and Mississippi.
But the VA denied CNN's repeated requests for interviews with either local facilities or officials in Washington, DC.
Then, on Thursday, the chief of the Norwood facility met with reporters to answer questions about the CNN story. Hamilton only became director in mid-2012, after much of the delays there had already been ongoing.
In an interview Thursday with CNN, Hamilton said the hospital had looked back at dozens of patients records out of concern for possible delays in care or treatment.
"We reviewed a total of 80 cases, and after careful review of both internally and externally into our organization we found that seven were related to a delay in care," he said. The facility sent notifications, or "institutional disclosures," to those seven veterans or their families about the delays in care.
Asked whether there might be more veterans dead or dying as a result of the delays in care at Norwood, Hamilton said: "We've had no additional fatalities at this point, and we are not aware of any additional requirements for any institutionalized disclosures based on the evidence."
Hamilton said by mid-2012 the delays in the gastrointestinal section of the hospital had grown to large numbers. "We were looking back at a potential delay in GI consults of about 5,100 total," he said.
On Tuesday, the VA said in a statement to CNN, "The Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to providing the best quality, safe and effective health care our Veterans have earned and deserve. We take seriously any issue that occurs at one of the more than 1,700 health care facilities across the country. The consult delay at Dorn VAMC has been resolved."
The statement added that cases are now tracked daily, and additional staff members were hired.
But sources at Dorn -- both patients and medical staff -- tell CNN that's just not true. The problems continue, and veterans are still facing delays that could be killing them.
CNN's Drew Griffin and Curt Devine contributed to this report.
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