Ronald Sharp still has flashbacks to the 28 combat explosions he endured in Afghanistan, but he said the nightmare that haunts him most is the treatment he received at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
From March to September 2013, the disabled Army veteran from Aiken County showed up four times to the Augusta hospital complaining of pain in his rectum and blood in his stool. He went to the emergency room twice in tears because he could not sit, he said, but was told the first time in August that there was nothing wrong and then a month later that the problem was hemorrhoids.
After waiting six months to see a specialist, he finally saw a gastroenterologist Sept. 27. A lesion was noted, but Sharp said the doctor recommended that he “live with the pain” for another two months because the success rate of a colonoscopy was minimal and could leave him incontinent.
The 49-year-old believes he would have died had he taken the advice.
Nine veterans have died and 15 others have had conditions worsen at VA hospitals in Augusta and Columbia from management delaying more than 7,500 gastrointestinal referrals.
Sharp contacted the office of U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., for help in getting private medical bills reimbursed, but despite the Republican’s pressing, the Augusta VA refused to pay for the colonoscopy he received at Aiken Regional Medical Centers that found five polyps, one of which was pre-cancerous.
Sharp filed a claim with the VA’s Regional Counsel in Atlanta on July 7 for $100,000 in pain and suffering damages and the $18,768 he incurred in medical bills for anesthesia, surgery, lab tests and doctor’s visits in Aiken.
He said he’s been told it will be six months before his case is concluded, but that he has a strong case.
“This procedure should have been done by the VA, and they should have paid for it,” Sharp said. “They’re transferring debt to someone who doesn’t deserve it.”
Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the VA’s interim undersecretary for health, told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs earlier this month in a letter that the Augusta VA’s gastrointestinal issues stemmed from a lack of providers, tracking mechanisms and a risk-based triage system in the clinic.
She said by addressing all consult requests in a week, and hiring two additional physicians and a full-time clinical nurse leader, the hospital has resolved all delays in gastrointestinal care.
Sharp said his case suggests the program has yet to eliminate its greatest flaw – the “three bloody show” rule.
The practice of not giving colon scopes until the patient experiences three blood discharges is still being used by Augusta staff, Sharp wrote the VA’s Regional Counsel.
“This archaic practice is a dollars-and-cents approach that risked my life, and it is an insult to the honor and integrity of service-connected veterans,” Sharp said in his deposition. “It is a foul, unholy system the VA has let take reign in their hallways and to cruelly make these kinds of decisions demands investigation. It is monstrous.”
Augusta VA spokesman Pete Scovill said that because Sharp’s claim is within the jurisdiction of a tort claim, it would be “inappropriate” to comment on the matter at this time.
Sharp is convinced he will win the benefits he was promised for conducting bomb-clearance missions in mine-protected vehicles in the Army from 2010 to 2011 at Afghanistan’s Forward Operating Base Sharana. Though the former combat engineer is technically still in the National Guard on a medical hold status until his discharge papers are finalized, he is listed as “incapacitated.” He receives 80 percent disability from the VA for post-traumatic stress disorder and injuries to his lower back, knees, feet, right leg and shoulder. He hopes to get 100 percent disability for his lungs and gastrointestinal system being exposed to poisonous chemicals he inhaled from batteries and electronics that an Army inspector general report says was improperly burned in open-air pits near his base in Afghanistan.
While he waits, the 2013 federal handbook for veteran benefits states that he’s eligible for “enhanced enrollment” for five years and entitled to “receive VA care and medication at no cost for any condition that may be related to their combat service.”
Sharp, however, was not seen in the VA’s now-eliminated two-week wait period for new patients, nor was he scheduled within the 60-day goal for diagnostic colonoscopies. In fact, 380 consults for diagnostic procedures were identified in a department review as beyond 60 days.
Sharp had a colonoscopy scheduled in the private sector a week after he sought outside consultation in Aiken. Besides polyps, an ulcer and diverticulitis hole was found in his colon.
Financial statements show Sharp’s insurance paid 80 percent ($16,552) of the procedure’s related costs and he was to take care of the remaining $2,216.
Sharp said Aiken Regional waived collection to allow him to negotiate an agreement with the VA, but he said the hospital’s patient advocate told him to file a complaint against the gastroenterologist and that its director, Bob Hamilton, wouldn’t listen to Wilson.
“I have to beg and plead to get the VA to do what they supposed to do. They would’ve killed me through inaction,” he said.
Sharp said he hopes progress is made and that the status quo is a betrayal to him, his family and veterans.
“The fact is I was promised health care by the United States of America,” he said. “It seems that was a lie.”