|VA Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson - VA.gov|
In a news conference on Friday at Phoenix VA, the agency's Acting Secretary, Sloan Gibson, said that at least 18 Arizona veterans died while waiting for initial appointments with a doctor. But he added that it is unclear whether any of the deaths was because of a delay in care.
However, The Reno Dispatch has learned that at least two veterans did die because of delayed care at Phoenix VA, according to two wrongful death lawsuits filed against the government that have both been settled for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Kitzinger's widow, Grace Kitzinger, filed the lawsuit in July 2013. Last month, just days after the story of the Phoenix VA's "secret list" of veteran patients was reported by CNN, Treasury Department records show that the government issued a payment of $800,000, according to a report in the National Law Journal.
The detailed complaint alleges there was negligence by Phoenix VA doctors. In its response to the complaint, the U.S. Attorney in Arizona said Kitzinger's injuries, damages and losses "were not proximately caused by the negligence of any employee of the United States."
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Phoenix had no further comment.
Brewster Rawls, an attorney at Rawls McNelis & Mitchell who represented Kitzinger's widow in the lawsuit, told The Reno Dispatch that neither he nor Kitzinger would be commenting on the settlement because of the widow's wish for privacy. But an attorney who regularly represents veterans in lawsuits against VA and is familiar with this case said the amount of the settlement means the government did not want to take it to a trial.
"The response from the government is standard boilerplate language," said the attorney, who asked not to be named. "They will always deny any liability and admit no negligence. But there's no way they would ever pay that kind of money if they didn't think they would lose in a trial. They might pay $10,000 or $25,000, but not $800,000, not that kind of money, unless you think you're gonna lose."
While Leonard Kitzinger's attorneys have no evidence that Kitzinger was on the Phoenix VA's notorious secret waiting list, they do assert in the complaint that Kitzinger died because of a delay in care at Phoenix VA.
According to VA, more than 100,000 veterans were victims of manufactured waiting lists for medical appointments, And treatment delays have already led to deaths at VA hospitals nationwide.
As USA Today reported last month, 23 veterans died as a result of delays in endoscopy screenings for potential gastrointestinal cancer at VA hospitals in Columbia, S.C., Hampton, Va.; Augusta, Ga.; Charleston, S.C.; Miami; West Palm Beach, Fla.; Huntington, W.Va.; Cleveland; Prescott, Ariz.; Tucson; Grand Junction, Colo.; and Iowa City, Iowa.
The Phoenix complaint states that when doctors did an EKG on Kitzinger on November 18, 2011, the result was "severely abnormal," but doctors sent Kitzinger home without any anti-ischemic medications and without a referral to a cardiologists for further follow-up.
The consult request form indicated that Kitzinger would be scheduled for the next available stress test, according to the complaint. However, the complaint said, the appointment was scheduled for January 4, 2012, almost seven weeks later.
Three days later, on Nov. 21, Kitzinger had a heart attack while at work, the complaint said, and four days later Kitzinger's wife made the difficult decision to terminate life-support for her husband. He died seven minutes later.
The complaint said Kitzinger's primary care doctor and the Phoenix VA "deviated from appropriate standards of medical care."
Meanwhile, the National Law Journal also reported that in December 2012, the government agreed to pay $600,000 to the wife of a veteran at Phoenix VA who died of liver cancer.
In October 2009, veteran Alphonso Coronado was diagnosed with liver cancer, and he died nine months later, according to the Journal, which noted that the complaint in that case cited actions that “resulted in significant delay in Alphonse Coronado’s care and treatment and more likely than not resulted in his death and/or the loss of a chance at an improved result."