The criticism surrounding the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continues to grow, with reports that veterans who have cancer are waiting much too long for treatment. CNN recounts the story of Sgt. Terry Mitchell, who survived the Vietnam War and exposure to Agent Orange. His wife, Vicki Mitchell, believes that he died because of delays in care at the VA.
A pathology report revealed a “concerning” growth on Mitchell’s on August 8, 2012. Doctors advised surgical removal, or “total excision”. But this surgery wasn’t performed until more than 2 and a half months later on October 22. Mitchell died ten months later at the age of 63.
The time Mitchell had to wait for the procedure “meets the standard of care” at the facility, the VA Medical Center in Dallas said to CNN. That fact is concerning for a number of people, including Dr. Karl Bilimoria, who worked at three VA medical centers and is currently a cancer surgeon at Northwestern University. “I really don’t think it’s appropriate that our vets have to wait for months,” he said to CNN. “That’s just the way the VA works, and it’s sort of been this way for years.”
Bilimoria and his colleagues researched wait times for eight common cancers at VA medical centers and published the results in 2011. The study showed that, in comparison to community hospitals, the wait time from cancer diagnosis to surgery were longer for all cancer types. The VA surgery wait times were more than twice as long for liver and colon cancer in particular, the researchers founds.
In a statement to CNN, the VA said “No Veteran should ever have to wait to receive the care they have earned through their service and sacrifice. We must work together to fix the unacceptable, systemic problems in accessing VA healthcare.”
But those words don’t seem to coincide with action, based on Bilimoria’s account. He and his team shared their results with VA leaders for three years and although many were upset by the findings, there seemed to be little done to fix the wait times. “We clearly haven’t seen any major initiatives,” he said. In fact, CNN reports that Dr. Michael Kelley, head of oncology for the VA nationwide, said in an email that “Timeliness of care is of interest, but would not be at the top of my list.” in response to one of Bilimoria’s colleagues. Kelly also wrote that even if there are long wait times at the VA, “it does not appear to result in worse survival” A VA official claims that Kelley meant in the email that the Northwestern research did not seem to be top priority and he doubted the findings.
The VA says that an independent review of cancer care showed that “in nearly all respects, the quality of VA care equaled or exceeded that of non-VA care.” This has not been found in other studies, however. For instance, one showed that the mortality rate at the VA after pancreatic surgery is two and a half times higher than at large academic health centers; the study also found that the complication rate was 58 percent higher in VA patients.