by: Aaron Diamant Updated:ATLANTA —
Washington, D.C., is full of memorials to the men and women who sacrificed their lives serving our country, but retired Air Force Capt. William Boritz's name isn't on any of those walls, just an old photo album and a flag in his widow's DeKalb County living room.
"He wasn't just somebody I knew who died. He was my whole life," said Veronica Boritz.
The decorated B-52 pilot's life was cut short, his family claimed, from poor care he got at the Atlanta VA Medical Center.
A botched procedure had burned a hole in William Boritz’s heart, and then he had follow-up care at the hospital that the VA wrote, in its own paperwork, constituted “negligence." Veronica Boritz sued the U.S. government for malpractice and eventually signed a six-figure settlement.
"I think only the tip of the iceberg has actually been found, and that's actually why I sued,” Veronica Boritz said.
Investigative reporter Aaron Diamant and a team of reporters and producers from Cox Media Group television stations and newspapers spent months analyzing a massive database of all federal government payouts from lawsuits and settlements.
They found nearly 4,500 malpractice cases involving the Department of Veterans Affairs, which the government either settled or lost, nationwide, over the last 10 years.
The cost to taxpayers: nearly $845 million at last count.
Dr. Anupam Jena, an assistant professor at Harvard University, noted that the VA pays out on about 25 percent of claims. Meanwhile, private sector health systems pay out about 20 percent, according to a study he participated in of 40,000 doctors published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Despite Channel 2’s repeated requests to interview any of the agency's top leaders about all this, the VA only responded with a short statement that it takes these issues serious, and is "Committed to continuous improvement; providing training, counseling, and other resources to ensure we continue to provide the high-quality, safe, and effective care our veterans have earned and deserve.”
"It's not just harming the taxpayers, they're harming public health," said Daniel Epstein, from the D.C. based watchdog group "Cause of Action." He called for an Inspector General's audit when Channel 2 showed him VA malpractice costs soared to a 10-year high in 2012 to nearly $100 million.
The highest payout in 2012 went to Marine Vet Christopher Ellison. He was awarded a $17 million judgment. He had a stroke following a dental procedure. He is now paralyzed
"I think this sounds like a management problem. This sounds like a systemic problem at the agency," said Epstein.
On Capitol Hill, house veterans affairs committee chairman Jeff Miller said the department has little incentive to clamp down, since the money to cover all those payouts comes straight from the United States Treasury rather than the VA’s own budget.
"I wish that we could shame the VA into doing the right thing, but I believe that they believe they're above being shamed," Miller said.
Over lunch outside Nashville, J.R. Howell was adamant he, and every veteran, deserves better.
"I was angry for a long time," Howell said.
The Army veteran nearly died and has spent years in pain recovering after doctors at the Memphis VA sent him home without proper treatment for a colon infection. A judge awarded him nearly $6 million.
"I tell you one thing, anything, any monetary award, we'd much rather have our health than money," said Howell.
Georgia Rep. David Scott demanded that Congress step up to end what he called the VA’s culture of complacency.
"Congress has to be the muscle on this. Congress has to be the enforcer on this," said Scott.
Vietnam vet J.R. Howell summed it up this way: "We give up our lives in service to the nation. The nation should serve us as well."