Former VA official calls lack of treatment, screening for cancer patient ‘a complete failure’

ATLANTA — An exclusive Channel 2 Action News Investigation finds that an Atlanta-area veteran died from cancer after never receiving further testing, screening or treatment for seven months after an initial colon cancer test came back positive.

A former top official at the US Department of Veterans Affairs tells Channel 2 Action News it was a failure at every level of the Atlanta VA’s Community Care office.

The veteran’s cancer was only ever treated after he came back to the emergency room in severe pain months later. It was too late.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray exclusively was shown an internal VA document by a source.

That document shows the Atlanta area veteran had a positive colon cancer screening test on Nov. 8, 2020 and that is when a colonoscopy was first ordered.

It was more than 50 days later that the veteran was told that two suggested Community Care providers were not accepting VA patients for the colonoscopy.

Six months later, there was still no colonoscopy. But that is when the patient showed up at the Atlanta VA Medical Center emergency room with abdominal pain.

The cancer was finally diagnosed after a CT scan. Cancer was found in the colon, liver and pancreas.

That veteran died Oct. 31, 2021.

MORE STORIES FROM 2 INVESTIGATES:

“You’d think that they would have enough sense to take care of us, but they’re trying, and they are not doing a good job,” Douglas County Vietnam veteran James Lovins said.

Lovins said he was not just sad, but not surprised about that veteran’s death. Lovins was just diagnosed himself with lung cancer by an oncologist outside the VA system last week.

That doctor said he needed an appointed next week to discuss treatment. But he’s having to wait until the end of the month to see a doctor through VA.

The VA Community Care program is designed to provide veterans treatment by private doctors, to ease pressure on the VA system. It’s required by law, called the VA Mission Act.

But data Channel 2 Action News has obtained from internal VA records shows that as of Nov. 2, there is a current backlog of more than 17,000 Atlanta area veterans who have applied for Community Care, who are waiting on appointments. Some have been waiting more than six months.

“They have not been following procedures I helped develop,” Darin Selnick said.

[DO YOU HAVE A STORY? Submit a story idea to 2 Investigates]

Selnick was a senior advisor to the previous two Secretaries of Veterans Affairs. Selnick directed implementation of the Mission Act.

He calls the death of that Atlanta veteran “a complete failure” by the Atlanta VA.

“Their systems are failing; their management is failing, and their staff is failing. A whole cascade of failures,” Selnick said.

Just in the past few months, in a series of Channel 2 Action News investigations we told you about mail, stacked up ten feet high, unopened and unprocessed at the Atlanta VA for months. And a troubled new phone system, where all summer long, some veterans could not get through to schedule care.

Now, the Atlanta VA tells us in a statement about the October death:

“We send our deepest condolences to the veteran’s family for their loss. Based upon our initial review, every effort was made to appropriately coordinate the veteran’s care in accordance to VA policy. We respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time and cannot provide additional details regarding the veteran’s healthcare.”

While the VA says every effort was made to coordinate that veteran’s care, Gray also obtained the slides from the Atlanta VA director’s presentation to staff last week.

One of the slides was titled, “What keeps you up at night.” One of the employees answers the VA director highlighted internally to her staff was “delays in Community Care scheduling.”

We also reviewed patient records of another Atlanta area veteran who died in September, after similar delays with getting scans and testing through Community Care.

IN OTHER NEWS: