Problems at the Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, detailed in a report released in September, contributed to the resignation Friday of Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The resignation came at the end of a crescendo of complaints about systemic delays in care at VA medical centers nationwide. While investigators have compiled 18 reports on delays since 2005, the Dorn report last September was among the first to turn up the volume at a national level.
The report found that six veterans who were patients at the center had died in part because of delayed care.
The VA inspector general’s report found backlogs for gastroenterology consultations of as many as 4,000 patients at Dorn in 2011-2012. That backup prompted months of delays in diagnosis and treatment, which have been linked to 52 cases of cancer and at least six deaths.
Dorn officials at the time blamed the delays on staffing and funding. The inspector general’s report said only about $200,000 of $1 million in funds designated to reduce the backlog could be tracked to spending directly on the problem. Since 2012, increased staffing and clinical changes have reduced the backlog, according to current Dorn officials.
In early April, Dorn’s problems got another national airing when veteran Barry Coates of McBee, in Chesterfield County, testified before a congressional committee about the delays that contributed to his colorectal, liver and lung cancer.
Coates testified that physicians were reluctant first to put him on the colonoscopy wait list and then to move him to the front of the list when his symptoms became severe. Coates was among the Dorn victims awarded compensation for the delays.
Contacted Friday, Coates applauded Shinseki for resigning.
“That’s probably the best thing for him to do,” said Coates, who recently started a new round of chemotherapy. “It sends a message to the people down below – ‘Hey, we got rid of the boss. We can get rid of you.’”
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., sent a letter to President Obama last week calling for Shinseki to resign. Wilson said Friday the decision was “a positive step towards restoring faith with those who have honorably served our nation.”
“As we move forward, it is my hope that President Obama lives up to the promises he made on the campaign trail in 2008 and puts an end to the delays and denial of services our veterans face each day. I also believe the administration should proceed with criminal investigations into the cover-ups that have led to the preventable complaints, illnesses, and deaths that plagued our VA system for years.”
The major cover-up allegations in recent weeks were detailed in an inspector general report on the two sets of waiting lists kept at the Phoenix VA hospital. Manipulating those lists made it appear the facility was meeting requirements for timely scheduling appointments. That report noted that the inspector general is looking into similar problems at other VA facilities, but it offered no specific facility names.
Rodney Burne is S.C. state commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which is headquartered in Lexington.
He worries that some observers might see Shinseki’s resignation as meeting the desired goal. Burne would like an oversight group, not necessarily run by Congress, to take a thorough look at the VA hospital system.
“This isn’t a Band-Aid fix,” Burne said of Shinseki’s resignation. “We need to examine the whole system, find out what’s wrong and come up with fixes. You can’t just throw one guy out and say ‘OK, now we’ve fixed the problem.’”