Veterans Day is about honoring veterans. All throughout the year, politicians of every stripe make claims to their unflinching support of veterans. The chorus grows loudest on Veterans Day.
The reality is that veterans are largely mistreated at every turn, beginning with the agency charged with protecting them, the Veterans Administration.
Let’s start there if we really want to honor veterans. After all protecting them from harm would be a good first step.
VA Medical System Neglect and Abuse
Perhaps there is no greater illustration of the neglect that veterans face every day than the monumental systemic neglect of the VA Medical System. The neglect has been ongoing for quite some time.
An oversight report from Sen. Tom Coburn, “Death, Delay & Dismay at the VA,” stated: “Over the past decade, more than 1,000 veterans may have died as a result of VA malfeasance…”
This is remarkable for so many reasons. To begin, the numbers are pretty shocking when compared to actual combat deaths during the same period. During roughly the same period, 2001-present, there have been about 5200 combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Worse yet, the fatality rates do not begin to measure the true harm to veterans caused by the neglect. It is fairly safe to assume that the number of veterans seriously harmed by VA medical negligence is exponentially higher than those killed. Apparently, the VA has refused to provide those numbers.
Accountability Means Responsibility
The new secretary has now called for reform stating that there would be accountability. How can there be accountability when the true scope of the problem remains unknown?
Accountability means more than firing a few figureheads. Accountability means responsibility. This means compensating veterans and their families for the injuries and wrongful deaths resulting from VA medical negligence.
It is a pretty safe bet to assume that the refusal to provide the data on injuries has not been turned over. It is also safe to assume that the veterans and families harmed by VA negligence will not be informed of the errors nor any suggestions of fair compensation be made.
Taking Responsibility Means Informing the Veteran
This seems straightforward enough but it is far from it when it comes to VA policy, which shows no sign of changing despite all the rhetoric about change. Sen. Coburn captures the problem of disclosure, the failure to take responsibility and the difficulty Veterans face in claims against the VA to hold it responsible:
“It is arguable that this malpractice tab could be higher if the VA was more forthcoming with its own negligence. Because the VA operates under a disclosure policy that informs patients when the hospital or doctors made a mistake, many claims may go unreported. In other words, patients and families may never even know if something went wrong if the VA did not self-report it.”
Patient Safety Demands Disclosure Yet…
Why is it important that the veterans be notified of possible negligent medical care by the VA? First and foremost, the veteran should know so that proper medically indicated remedial measures may be taken.
A good example of the problem is the issue of delayed/failed diagnosis, which is discussed in Sen. Coburn’s report. Failure or delay in diagnosis is a problem in medical care. A delay or failure to diagnose can have deadly consequences. Very little imagination is needed to understand why.
Though failure or delays in diagnosis are common, the very nature of the VA’s systemic neglect of veterans suggest that the problem is far more pervasive there. In addition, despite all the talk of reform, there has been little discussion of what to do about the actual patients who may, as we speak, be subject to possible harm from neglect.
Again, the calls for reform are certainly welcome but fall far short of actually compensating veterans. After all, how can it possibly be suggested that the VA is taking responsibility when there is no doubt veterans out there now that are at risk from negligent failure to detect and diagnose illnesses?
The Discovery Rule
The VA will be bound by New Mexico medical malpractice laws with regard to medical malpractice claims made against the Albuquerque VA Hospital.
The discovery rule is important because it means the statue of limitations, only 2 years on claims against the federal government including the VA, does not run until the negligence is or should have been discovered by the patient.
What this means is determined on a case-by-case basis. However, it is again safe to assume that the veterans will not discover their injuries through voluntary disclosure by the VA Medical System. What’s perhaps worse, and perhaps cynical (remains to be seen), is that once a veteran does discover harm resulting from negligence and decides to bring a medical malpractice claim, the VA Hospital does its best to convince a court that the discovery rule does not apply or that somehow the veteran should have known earlier or some other variation intended to escape responsibility for its negligence.
Once again, accountability requires responsibility and it remains to be seen if the VA intends to take responsibility for its neglect. The history of the VA does not bode well for veterans harmed by VA medical negligence despite the enthusiastic cries of support that they will hear today.