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Augusta VA malpractice costs $3 million

Friday, Dec. 6, 2013 8:52 PM
Last updated Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013 12:52 AM
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About half of the medical malpractice lawsuits filed recently against the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta ended in settlements totaling more than $3 million, according records in U.S. District Court in Augusta.

Although none of the settlements included an admission of liability by the Augusta VA, many of the lawsuits make similar claims of neglectful or delayed care. At least one plaintiff’s attorney said he believes the problem might lie with inadequate staffing because of lack of funding.

An Augusta Chronicle search of U.S. District Court records using the designation for personal injury-medical malpractice turned up at least nine cases filed since 2005. Of those, the VA prevailed in two, one was voluntarily dismissed, two are pending and four ended in settlements with no admission of liability by the VA. In both the cases the VA won and those that ended in settlement, there were similar allegations of patients neglect or poor care.

None of the cases appear to be from a recently disclosed consultations’ backlog of more than 5,000 patients in its gastrointestinal program, which resulted in four serious injuries and three cancer patients who died. Augusta VA officials said they have since launched an intensive effort to whittle down that backlog. The VA could not say whether any claims have resulted from that, but information on how to file a lawsuit was provided to the seven families.

In some cases it might not yet be clear whether a case is related to those backlogs, said Chuck Pardue, a military disability and malpractice attorney in Augusta. He is working with a veteran who lives near Dublin, Ga., and was bounced back and forth between the VA there and the Augusta and Decatur VAs for diagnostic tests. He was finally diagnosed with gallbladder cancer, which Pardue said is now terminal, in November 2011 but wasn’t informed until this year.

“One, they didn’t tell him, and two, they didn’t timely follow up,” Pardue said. “Part of the problem was handing it off from one staff to another, and back and forth.”

For its part, the VA operates a system that allows for events and even “near misses” to be reported so that the system can learn from them and correct them, which has won the VA praise in the past, Augusta VA spokesman Pete Scovill said in a statement.

However, it is difficult to get to the point of even filing a medical malpractice lawsuit against the VA, Pardue said.

“We’re talking to three or four people a week, potential clients, and maybe one out of 20 is a pretty good case,” he said.

A patient or family first must file a notice of its claim using Standard Form 95, and then the VA has six months to decide whether to reject or accept the claim. If rejected or if six months pass and the VA has not responded, the patient or family can then file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court.

Among the cases the VA settled in Augusta:

• A 71-year-old veteran with a history of heart problems showed up at an outpatient clinic complaining of chest pains but was not referred to cardiology, according to the lawsuit. The man had a heart attack four days later while having sex with his wife and was pronounced dead at the hospita, The veteran was prescribed both nitroglycerin and Viagra, “a widely acknowledged absolute contraindication of drugs,” the suit says. Without admitting fault, the VA settled for $58,000.

• A 60-year-old veteran had kidney surgery to remove a suspicious mass and was discharged. Eight days later, he returned with severe pain on that side, blood in his urine and a distended bladder, according to the lawsuit. Over the course of the next few days, as pain persisted and more blood was collected, his red blood cell counts dropped and he was found on the floor of his room unresponsive and later died. Without admitting fault, the VA settled for $850,000.

• A 56-year-old veteran who was a paraplegic from his service was admitted for a number of issues, including bed sores, dehydration, a possible blood infection and kidney problems, Within a few days, he had difficulty breathing and was vomiting. The head of his bed was lowered so staffers could clean up vomit that covered his bed and gown, but he was left unattended and he choked on vomit and developed brain and organ damage before he could be revived. Without admitting fault, the VA settled for $1.7 million.

Part of the problem could be the governmental immunity that shields VA physicians and staffers from personal responsibility, Pardue said.

“The liability is picked up by the federal government,” he said. “As a consequence, there is quite a bit of difference between private hospitals and private doctors, who remain fully accountable for what they do. I think it does make somewhat of a difference.”

Scovill, however, said that “although the VA medical centers do not make malpractice payments from their own budgets (it) does not mean that they are less concerned with the quality of patient care they provide.”

“When the possibility exists that a patient may have been harmed in the provision of a health care service, patients are notified and evaluated for ill effects,” Scovill said. “In the event patients may have been injured, VA advises them of their right to seek damages or disability compensation.”

Part of the problem is there are just not enough bodies to provide good care, Pardue said.

“What we’re seeing is just not enough staff,” he said. “They can’t get the people back in for timely appointments.”

Some of the responsibility for that lies outside the VA’s control, Pardue said.

“Congress needs to fund more physicians and nurses for these VA facilities; it really does,” he said. “It won’t eliminate it, but it could greatly reduce injuries.”

Staff Writer Wesley Brown contributed to this article.

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seenitB4 12/07/13 - 09:24 am
What a shame

They give their all in service to this country & we forget about them....just stack them away & look the other way....this could be your dad---your brother--your son....I'm ashamed of the USA for letting these men slip through the cracks.

teaparty 12/07/13 - 10:14 am
government run healthcare,

government run healthcare, can't wait for obamacare

Riverman1 12/07/13 - 10:51 am
I wonder if Mr. Corwin could

I wonder if Mr. Corwin could give us the amount University Hospital has paid in malpractice settlements.

GuyGene 12/07/13 - 10:53 am
And, could be me...

Thanks for your concern, seenit, et. al. As a disabled Vietnam vet, yep, it could be me. It does make me a bit concerned about the colonoscopies I've had done at VA.

Bulldog 12/07/13 - 11:01 am
When its free...

The mission of the VA has expanded hugely in the last 70 years. What was originally envisioned as a safeguard for wounded/injured service personnel, over 140 years ago, has grown into an entitlement for anyone who has served. As a result of the requirement to serve everyone, the system is now grossly over utilized. When the service is free, the line will be long. In a free market, the rationing device is called money. That device does not apply here. As a matter of course, any system with an unlimited demand will become rationed in some way. Sometimes that way may carry unintended consequences. The current system at the VA is rationed by the length of the queue. Any additional money applied to the system will only serve to temporarily relieve that pressure. When the demand is unlimited, no amount of money will resolve the issue. Only by limiting the demand can any system continue to function.

griff6035 12/07/13 - 11:57 am

Nothing is free, Military service members have paid for this care as good or bad as it may be by serving there Country it time of war an peace. I am a veteran but when I signed up 53 years ago the form did not say that if you go to war and suffer injuries you will have Health care. The form I signed said that If you were Honorable discharged and ever needed Health care and had no other option you could receive care through the VA, Service connected or not. I am sure the system is abused like any Government funded program, but Honorable Discharged Service Men an Women have paid for there care.

Sweet son
Sweet son 12/07/13 - 02:00 pm
Riverman is right. Mr. Corwin needs to write a comparison

article for the VA and other local hospitals regarding medical misadventures resulting in civil lawsuits.

@GuyGene it seems that the Norwood VA has had problems in the past with the cleanliness of it's colonoscopes. Bet if you check the AC archives you will find an article on dirty scopes.

teaparty 12/07/13 - 03:00 pm
"When the service is free,

"When the service is free, the line will be long."
Bulldog, I notice you got a thumbs down for telling the truth. One big thing that has drove up the price of healthcare is the 3rd party payer system. When someone else is paying a large % of folks do not care what it cost and liberals are by far the worse.

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