The center had to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the VA data and pumped it into an interactive graphic that gives details on the 59 veterans in California, and 1,000 nationwide, who shouldn't have died when they did.
CIR found a wide range of horrible medical treatment that resulted in death, including veterans who who killed themselves after botched surgeries, rejection for mental health assistance, misdiagnoses and fatal hospital neglect.
A spokeswoman for the agency, Victoria Dillon, responded to the findings by emphasizing that 6 million veterans are treated every year. Her cup is way more than half full.
The center documented each case with information on where it happened, how much was paid out and a generic description of the wrongdoing, but only provided details on individual incidents in the text of its story. None of them were Californians.
A veteran shot himself in the head in a Minnesota VA psych ward. In Portland, Oregon, a delusional vet hurled himself off the roof of the VA hospital. The wife of an 84-year-old veteran in Grand Island, Nebraska, got $135,000 when her husband died nine days after being admitted to a VA nursing home. Although there were instructions that he not be left alone, he was. He fell and hit his head.
The median payment in cases was $150,000.
Legal experts said that the number of payouts represented only a small percentage of those who were victims of malpractice. It's much tougher to successfully pursue a claim against the military because families must navigate a months-long administrative process before filing a lawsuit in state or federal court.
Massachusetts attorney Cristobal Bonifaz, who won a $350,000 settlement in 2009 for the family of a soldier who hanged himself after being refused psychiatric treatment, said, “The VA fights every case tooth and nail and so cases drag on for years.” Another one of her clients, Tracy Eiswert, proved the VA wrong when he shot himself to death after they denied his disability claim for post-traumatic stress syndrome.
It's also tough to collect on a claim when VA hospitals cover up delays in patient care that lead to bad results. An investigation by CNN last November focused on problems at the Williams Jennings Bryan Dorn Veterans Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina, where veterans waited months for gastrointestinal procedures, such as colonoscopies. The result was six deaths linked to cancer diagnoses that came too late.
The network reported that 52 gastrointestinal cancer patients out of 280 cases reviewed by medical investigators at Dorn were “associated with a delay in diagnosis and treatment.” Debra Draper of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) told CNN that her staff had found evidence that hospitals were covering up wait times by fudging numbers and backdating appointments.
Medical malpractice payments, fatal and otherwise, have escalated dramatically in recent years, according to information extracted by Bloomberg from the VA using the Freedom of Information Act. The VA paid out $97.1 million in 2012. The largest of the 400 or so claimants was the family of Christopher Ellison, who received $17.5 million after he went to a Philadelphia veterans medical center to have eight teeth extracted and ended up permanently incapacitated.
2012 topped 2011 by $25.1 million. Bloomberg calculated that the VA has spent around $700 million on malpractice actions since September 11, 2001.
As many as 1.2 million additional soldiers are expected to return to civilian life in the next four years.