A recent audit conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs showed that the government agency spent more than $800 million over the past decade paying claims to injured veterans and their families who suffered due to preventable medical mistakes. The trouble appears to be increasing, at least according to a report by the Cox Media Group, which found that med mal payouts reached an all-time high in 2012, the last year for which there was complete data.
Elected officials have been critical of the VA recently, saying that the powerful healthcare system is seldom held accountable for its shortcomings. In fact, some critics have pointed out that as medical malpractice payouts continued to increase there is evidence that bonuses were paid to the very doctors accused of making some of the costly mistakes.
The audit revealed that 4,426 veterans and their families have received $845 million between 2002 and 2012. In 2012 alone, more than $98 million was paid to hundreds of patients injured at the hands of VA doctors and nurses. Some of the examples are heartbreaking and raise alarm about how this kind of behavior could be tolerated in such a major healthcare system.
In one case, a 20-year-old Marine was left completely paralyzed after going in for a routine tooth extraction. Doctors discharged the man despite his dangerously low blood pressure and he was involved in a terrible car accident only two-tenths of a mile from the VA. In another case, a veteran of the Korean War died after going in for a simple biopsy. The man ended up bleeding to death after not being checked on for hours.
Another troubling issue is that the VA made bonus payments to doctors and administrators who were accused of making some serious mistakes. A radiologist who was cited for failing to competently read and analyze a mammogram still managed to walk away with an $8,000 bonus. A surgeon got a $12,000 bonus despite leaving surgery early while another got $7,500 even though he had been practicing for months on an expired medical license.
The increasing malpractice claims have caused critics to demand reform. The group Cause of Action has come out and publicly demanded that the VA institute sweeping reforms concerning the way its hospitals are managed, saying that the problems have been obvious for more than 10 years now. Politicians are also critical, arguing that the nation owes more to those who served their country honorably.
For its part, the VA claims that the number of malpractice actions filed against it is relatively low given how large the VA’s medical network is. The VA says that it treated more than 6 million patients in 2012, yet received only 1,544 malpractice claims. However, researchers at Harvard University recently published a study dealing with med mal claims in the VA system and noted that the VA pays claims at a higher rate than private sector hospitals. Data shows that the VA pays out around 25 percent of its malpractice claims where other hospitals pay about 20 percent of claims, leaving some to wonder what has gone wrong in the VA to cause the trouble.