Sammamish cites VA delay as cause of brother’s death
June 3, 2014
By Peter Clark
New: June 3, 3:33 p.m.
One Sammamish woman is suing the VA for causing her brother’s death as the government agency’s scandal hits home.
Constance Olberg filed a complaint in US District Court against the Veteran Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System in December, alleging that long delays led to a fatal spreading of cancer in her brother Donald Douglass.
According to the official complaint, Douglass, who attended Issaquah High School, went to a VA medical center in May 2011 because of a lesion on his forehead. A biopsy was taken and the practitioners there informed him that the biopsy was cancerous and recommended surgery.
Oblerg’s complaint says the VA medical center “failed to coordinate” with the University of Washington to schedule surgery. Because of this delay, Douglass was forced to schedule his own surgery four months later. By then, it was too late.
The complaint states “the delay… resulted in spread to a facial nerve, paralysis and radiation treatment.”
Despite Douglass’ regular attempts to call the VA and pursue treatment, the complaint claims the agency “failed to timely set up his surgery and follow-up care.”
Douglass died in November 2012.
Not yet terminal
Lead attorney for the case, Jessica Holman of Holman Law in Tacoma, said Douglass had approached the firm in the summer before his death.
“When he originally came to us, he was not yet terminal,” she said. “He was just so furious and didn’t know his melanoma was in its final stages.”
Holman said she found the case compelling because of his detailed medical history.
“What was striking about it to me was how it’s actual a well-documented delay,” she said.
Douglass had received a liver transplant in 2009 and recovered well from the procedure. Holman said though he suffered no large physical concerns after the transplant, medication he took to ensure his recovery had the capability to exacerbate any further health risks. She said the VA should have treated that with greater severity.
“We don’t know where it fell apart,” Holman said of the communications break down which her case claims led to Douglass’ death. “They are supposed to act with urgency and he ended up having to go around them completely. We don’t know how much longer he would have had to wait.”
Not an isolated incident
Olberg’s complaint mirrors the recent national exposure around long wait times at VA medical centers around the country, possibly leading to upwards of 40 deaths.
Twenty-six facilities are currently under investigation according to the inspector general at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs including the Phoenix hospital at the center of assertions about treatment delays and secret waiting lists intended to hide delays.
U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki resigned May 30 amid the growing scandal.
Fourteen cases of wrongful death were reported by the VA Puget Sound Medical System between 2003 and 2011, according to The Center for Investigative Reporting. The medical center paid out about $5.2 million to families as a result. Three of the 14 cases list “delay in treatment” as a cause of wrongful death.
Holman said since stories like Douglass’ entered the national stage, more veterans came out of the woodwork to add their own to a growing list.
“We received word from 20 other veterans with complaints,” she said. “It definitely wasn’t an isolated incident in Washington.”
In its February response to the complaint, United States Attorney Jenny Durkan denied the allegations and United States District Judge Richard Jones set a trial date for next spring.
The VA Puget Sound Medical System spokesman Chad Hutson said he could not comment on potential litigation.