Posted on May 30, 2006
$6.5 Million Malpractice Suit Draws Scrutiny to VA Hospital
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ANDY MEEK | The Daily News
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: The local VA Medical Center is being sued for $6.5 million by two sisters who claim their 60-year-old brother - who died in 2004 - suffered from complications of a botched surgical procedure. The center must respond to the lawsuit within 60 days. -- PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDY MEEKShortly before 60-year-old James Carmon died in his home in the small town of Luxora in northwest Arkansas, a medical injury had made it so difficult for him to sit in his wheelchair he would have to lie down on his couch or bed after just half an hour to relieve the pain.
Back and forth he went, receiving in-home nursing care, shifting from the wheelchair to his couch and bed. Carmon - a construction worker who had served as an intelligence specialist in the Army during the 1960s - also was a diabetic. Records suggest that being confined to the wheelchair caused his feet to swell and develop sores.
At the time of his death in December 2004, he also had a large hole in his lower back where a surgical device allegedly had left burn marks.
Burden of proof
Whether a medical procedure in 2002 at the Memphis Veterans Affairs Medical Center was responsible for causing some of those injuries or worsening others - as two of Carmon's sisters claim in a $6.5 million medical malpractice lawsuit they filed this month in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee - ultimately will be decided in a tangle of legal proceedings.
The suit contends that Carmon, a veteran who earned the Army's National Defense Service and Sharpshooter medals during his military service, underwent a failed surgical procedure at the Memphis VA center at 1030 Jefferson Ave. It also states two surgeons assigned to his case misrepresented his operation and condition in medical reports and to Carmon's family and that, relying on the advice of those doctors, family members did not seek any treatment elsewhere.
"This is just horrible," said Louisiana attorney Michael Harper, who's representing Carmon's sisters, Peggy Brown and Mary Jo Carson. The suit was filed May 2.
In court papers, Alan Foster, regional counsel for the VA, is listed as the attorney for the defendants, but referred questions elsewhere.
"At this point, I really can't comment on the suit, as it's being handled by the U.S. Attorney's Office," Foster said. He directed inquiries about the case to Harriett Halmon in the local U.S. Attorney's office since the VA regional counsel doesn't appear in court and the U.S. Attorney's Office is representing the VA. Halmon declined to discuss details of the complaint.
Memphis VA Medical Center::Built in 1967.Operates at 1030 Jefferson Ave.Services are available to almost 210,000 veterans living in 53 counties in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.Dr. Paul Beach, one of the surgeons named as a defendant in the suit who now works in South Carolina, could not recall any details of the operation, which occurred about four years ago.
Service for servicemen, women
The legal action comes at a time when quality-of-life issues for U.S. veterans are getting more nationwide attention; 7.5 million are enrolled in the national VA system to receive medical care and other benefits.
The Memphis VA center remains one of the leading facilities in the VA system, with a spokeswoman describing it as among the 30 most intricate, state-of-the-art of the VA's 154 medical centers. Built in 1967, the 1.2-million-square-foot center is a teaching hospital, offers a full range of patient care and supports about $12 million in research projects each year.
A major construction improvement also is in the works. Local VA spokeswoman Willie Logan said the final phase of a project that began in 1996 to improve earthquake resistance of the original 14-story building will wrap up in July.
"They've also got two satellite centers they've opened recently, one in Whitehaven and one in Bartlett," said Joe Kyles, manager of Shelby County's Veterans Services Office who also serves on the board of the local VA center.
Even so, Carmon's siblings would probably agree with a recent assessment by the secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, who spoke to a crowd of 100 veterans in Colorado last week. VA Secretary R. James Nicholson said the department needs to do a better job of caring for veterans in the nation's VA medical centers.
A ponderous political problem
In Senate testimony in April, the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee said health care needs have so outpaced the VA that its facilities, in many cases, are operating where veterans used to live, not where they live now.
"The VA's medical system has drastically changed over the past few decades," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, in a Congressional hearing last month. "Prior to the mid-1990s, there were virtually no outpatient clinics in the VA health care system. Today, there are over 800."
Health-related concerns aren't the only pressing issues the VA is dealing with at the moment. On Monday, the VA made public the theft of personal information - including birthdates and Social Security numbers - of 26.5 million veterans when a VA data analyst erroneously brought the materials home to work on a department project. The data, for the most part, included veterans discharged since 1975, and the home theft is believed to be one of the largest in U.S. history.
Just last year, the VA came under fire for shoddy accounting practices, according to one report. At the time, 260,000 veterans were not able to sign up for services because of cost-cutting measures - while audits revealed the agency used misleading accounting methods and had no proof of savings.
One of Carmon's sisters, Peggy Brown, declined to discuss the local suit, but said more public scrutiny should be directed toward the VA - which, according to its Web site, spent $31.5 billion in 2005 for health care, benefits and maintaining the national cemetery system.
Carmon, born in 1944 in the town of Tomato, Ark., was a sheetrock hanger who was admitted to the Memphis VA in late 2002 for "routine, elective, lifestyle-enhancing" surgery, according to the suit. The procedure was supposed to clear the arteries in his legs, which had become compromised as a result of peripheral vascular disease.
Instead, Carmon was accidentally shocked during the surgery, and a surgical balloon was left lodged in his leg, according to court documents.
"It was this electrical shock that messed up his nerves, left him paralyzed and left a hole in his body down to the bone," Harper said. "It's disgusting to even look at."
Harper said the VA has 60 days to respond to the suit, and any other court action that will be taken will be decided then.