[author: by Courtney Sherwood]
Chuck Pennington’s liver biopsy seemed fairly routine. But instead of taking a day or two to recover, Pennington died at the Dayton Veterans Affairs Medical Center of internal hemorrhage. He’d received too much blood thinner, and had not been regularly checked by nurses at the hospital.
Pennington’s wife is one of eight surviving family members to receive $940,000 in payments from the Dayton VA Medical Center for errors made between 2005 and 2008, according an investigation published this month by the Dayton Daily News . Also receiving payments for medical malpractice were survivors of a patient who died after receiving an incorrect chemotherapy dose, someone killed by a post-hip-surgery infection, and a veteran who died as a result of in-hospital injuries after allegedly being attacked by another patient.
With the Department of Veterans Affairs operating one of the largest health care delivery systems in the nation, providing care to more than 5 million veterans per year, some medical errors may be unavoidable. But a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that medical malpractice tort claims are on the rise at the VA, climbing 33 percent over the five-year period that ended in 2010. And about half of those claims involved substandard care.
Laurie Higginbotham, medical malpractice attorney with Archuleta, Alsaffar & Higginbotham, said that the climb in claims may be because there are more veterans in the overall population, not because of higher error rates. Veterans of the Vietnam War and more recent conflicts are seeking more care as they age, and at the same time troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are leaving the armed forces and making greater use of the VA system.
While the overall Veterans Affairs malpractice rate may not be climbing, it does not appear to be dropping, either. That may be due in part to a lack of accountability among doctors who make mistakes, Higginbotham said.
“When the VA is sued for medical negligence, the physician responsible is not named. The suit is against the United States of America, as opposed to Doctor X,” she said. “I see a lot of the same doctors with the same types of injuries.”
Malpractice claims filed against non-federal hospitals, by contrast, typically include the physicians and other medical professionals involved. A lost lawsuit drives up insurance costs for these doctors, and high malpractice insurance rates may force them to improve their safety record or leave the field.
“I don’t think the problems you find at VA or military hospitals are exclusive to VA or military hospitals,” Higginbotham said. “But they can be exacerbated by lack of accountability.”
In 2010, the VA paid out about $79 million on 341 tort claims filed across the country. But the human stories behind those payments have largely been obscured by health care privacy laws. The Dayton Daily News investigation, which used public records and interviews to identify Pennington and other veterans who died or were injured, is shining a light on some of those stories and the health care failures that underpin them.
All told, 72 claims were filed against the Dayton VA Medical Center from 2005 through 2012, including 22 linked to an infection scandal at its dental clinic.
A dentist at the clinic was accused of failing to change gloves and sterilize equipment between patients, possibly resulting in one hepatitis C and two hepatitis B infections. That scandal spurred a flurry of resignations and retirements at the Dayton VA. Though six claims have been dismissed against the dental clinic, 16 claimants continue to seek $6.7 million in damages, the Dayton Daily News reported.
Veterans currently receiving health care through the VA system can take lessons from experiences like these.
If you’re not satisfied with the care you’re currently receiving, it’s important to speak up and be an advocate for yourself, or ask a friend or family member to advocate for you, attorney Higginbotham said. “It’s true everywhere, but especially with the VA: The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” If you believe you need a test, a prescription or a second opinion, you may not get it unless you ask.
If you believe that you or a loved one has been the victim of medical malpractice, you should talk to a lawyer right away, Higginbotham said. Complaints against the VA system must be handled according to specific procedures, and because of a two-year statute of limitations on malpractice suits against VA hospitals it’s important to start moving fast.
“Consult with a lawyer at the first sign of a problem,” Higginbotham said. “There are a lot of traps you could fall into if you’re not talking to a lawyer when something was wrong with your medical care.”