An east-central Georgia family was awarded a wrongful-death settlement from the Department of Veterans Affairs last week after VA hospitals in Augusta, Dublin and Atlanta failed to treat and diagnose a disabled Army veteran for gallbladder cancer, according to the judgment released Tuesday.
The estate of Jimmy Lee Stapleton, 68, will receive more than $100,000 in damages after he died June 2 at his home in Emanuel County from more than two years of negligent care in the three VA hospitals, said family attorney Chuck Pardue, who practices law in Martinez.
Stapleton’s death is not believed to be linked to the botched gastrointestinal program at Augusta’s Charlie Norwoood VA Medical Center, where more than 4,500 consultations were delayed and three cancer patients died in 2011.
Pardue said it is, however, an example of the problems that could have been avoided if Congress had approved a $17 billion bill sooner to allow veterans to see private doctors at government expense if they face a wait of 30 days or longer or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.
“The outcome’s unfair, and I truly believe if the VA had done their job, my husband would still be here today,” said Stapleton’s wife of 46 years, Carolyn. “No one should have to go through the same torture my husband and other veterans have, and I hope they don’t.”
The settlement, which is expected to be issued in six to eight weeks, brings to a close a yearlong dispute of whether the VA should have paid for Stapleton to receive treatment in private medical facilities in Dublin and Macon, when Georgia’s three VA hospitals didn’t have space to care for the disabled veteran, who served in the Army from 1965 to 1967.
The VA’s regional counsel in Atlanta, who agreed to settle Aug. 7, did not return phone or e-mail messages seeking comment, but said in a letter to Pardue that the judgment “should not be construed as an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States or its employees.”
“Signing the (settlement) will constitute a release of the government and its agents from any further claims arising from the incident,” staff attorney Deborah Morrell said in her letter to Pardue from Atlanta Regional Counsel. “We sincerely regret the pain and inconvenience your client may have suffered as a result of this incident.”
Carolyn Stapleton, 62, said her husband was first diagnosed with gallstones at the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin in 1998, but that surgeons initially refused to remove the growths.
Problems with pain persisted for 13 years and led to Stapleton’s being diagnosed with pancreatitis in October 2011. A month later, on Nov. 2, she said, VA doctors decided her husband’s gallbladder was “rotten” and, along with two lobes of his liver, needed to be removed.
The operations were completed at the Atlanta VA Medical Center in January 2012. No cancer was found, but doctors ordered the veteran to return to the VA for periodic testing and a biopsy to start chemotherapy, under the suspicion that the disease might become active, Carolyn Stapleton said.
In some instances, those appointments were canceled at the last minute by the VA in Augusta, Dublin and Atlanta, Pardue said. Despite repeated requests to the VA in 2013, when appointments were unavailable in the VA system, Stapleton was refused referrals to available private medical facilities in Dublin and Macon, the attorney said.
“He had cancer and would have eventually died from his conditions, but if he had received chemotherapy and other treatment, we argued, it would have extended his life,” Pardue said.
Carolyn Stapleton agreed.
“He was sent on a merry-go-round of canceled appointments from one hospital to another,” she said.
She said that on Aug. 22, 2013, during a visit to the Augusta VA, her husband was diagnosed with Stage 4 gallbladder cancer. He had two rounds of chemotherapy, but when the disease attacked his bone marrow and a cure was ruled out he decided to stop treatment and return home May 30 to be with his family.
“The only way I could bring my husband home was through hospice. It’s still very painful to me,” she said.
Pardue said he has 15 more cases pending with the VA. With the new Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, the attorney expects more claims to surface concerning the issue. He has handled VA claims since 1986.
“You always want more for the client, but the VA is treating claims concerning delayed care and refusals to send patients to outside clinics very seriously now, which I don’t think they were doing before 2014,” Pardue said.