Barry Coates wishes he didn’t have to sit in front of a congressional hearing and detail painful personal health details.
However, he says he feels a strong obligation to make the Veterans Administration own up to problems with its medical treatment of people who sacrificed so much for their country.
Coates plans to be in Washington Wednesday to tell the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs his story. He can only hope it’ll lead to changes that prevent other veterans from going through similar ordeals.
“I’m not doing it for myself,” said Coates, 44, who has battled colorectal, liver and lung cancer over the past two years. “I want to be the voice for all the vets who have suffered through this, and for the ones who died and their loved ones.”
The hearing will rehash the massive backlog in diagnosis and treatment of colorectal concerns at Dorn VA Medical Center in 2011-2012. A Veterans Administration inspector general’s report released in September found backlogs of as many as 4,000 patients prompted months of delays in diagnosis and treatment. Those delays were linked to 52 cases of cancer and at least six deaths.
Dorn officials at the time blamed staffing and funding, though the inspector general said only about $200,000 of $1 million in funds designated to reduce the backlog had been spent on that issue. In the past year, increased staffing and clinical changes have wiped out the backlog, according to current Dorn officials.
Coates hopes the Dorn problems have been solved, but he plans to keep publicizing his plight if only to shame VA leaders into putting more resources into caring for service members. His testimony, and comments from others about the Dorn situation, will be aired in the latest in a serious of hearings called by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. Miller has especially been focused on what he perceives as stonewalling by VA officials on information about the problems, and on the lack of punishment for the upper management at problem facilities.
“In order to provide real closure for those struck by these heartbreaking preventable deaths, VA needs to hold fully accountable the employees who allowed patients to slip through the cracks,” Miller said.
Rock Hill clinic
Coates ended up with a nine-month gap between his first visit to a VA physician with serious symptoms until the life-threatening conditions were properly diagnosed. About half of that delay was directly related to the Dorn backlog.
Coates has been on military disability since suffering severe lower back injuries near the end of Army boot camp in 1991. In January 2011, he went to a VA clinic near his home in Rock Hill because he was experiencing severe rectal pain. He says he specifically asked the physician if he needed a colonoscopy.
Instead, he was given medicine for pain and constipation. The problems persisted, and Coates returned to the clinic in March. Same diagnosis, same medication, same lack of results.
In July, he moved to McBee and his case was transferred to a VA clinic in Florence. His doctor there wondered why he hadn’t been set up to see a gastroenterologist, and Coates was set up for an appointment at Dorn. He couldn’t be fit in for an appointment until September.
Even though he had been in pain for nine months by September, the gastroenterologist at Dorn decided to wait to see if new medication would help. Finally, in October, the gastroenterologist at Dorn agreed Coates needed a colonoscopy, Coates said.
But because of the colonoscopy backlog at Dorn, all but the most serious cases faced a five-month wait. Coates was put on a list to call if an opening came up unexpectedly. By the time he had a colonoscopy on Dec. 9, it was way too late.
“They showed me the picture of the tumor, and it was as big as a fist,” Coates said. “They said they were pretty sure it was stage four colorectal cancer, and it had spread to the liver and lungs.”
His oncologist later told him if the colonoscopy had been done earlier, Coates might have been in the early stages of colorectal cancer, and it likely wouldn’t have spread to his liver and lungs.
Dr. March Seabrook, a gastroenterologist in Columbia with no ties to Dorn, said inspector general’s report indicates a series of errors resulting from bad communications to lack of personnel. In his view, those problems grow out of a massive organization that does a poor job of prioritizing.
“If I have somebody that I’m worried about, I have the control, and I can say I want to see this person (for a colonoscopy) tomorrow or next week,” Seabrook said.
Somebody who is 50 years old and has indicated no problems goes to the back of the consult list. Somebody 54 with rectal bleeding gets in the front, Seabrook said.
At Dorn, Coates was slotted in the waiting line much like anyone else.
Cancer at bay
Surgeries and chemotherapy have kept Coates’ cancer at bay, but he spends most of his time going back and forth to medical appointments and procedures. His most recent oncology checkup indicated he has no colorectal cancer, but small spots are growing on his lungs and liver.
“The reason I’m still here today is the Lord himself,” Coates said. “If you looked at me, you couldn’t see I’m sick.”
Coates said he filed formal complaints against the VA and was awarded $150,000 for pain and suffering, but nothing for the loss in quality of life if the cancer had been found earlier. He could have appealed to get more money, but he was told the delay for an appeal to work through the system could been a year or two and might not be successful.
“The government is that way,” Coates said. “They done wrong, and they know they done wrong. We’re talking about a life here.”
Instead of appealing the ruling, he is focusing on fighting cancer and spending time with his wife, five children and four grandchildren. He sees his survival this long as an indication of a higher calling. That’s why he’s taking his message all the way to Congress.
“If you’re serving in the military now, how does this make them feel?” he said. “The VA is supposed to be there to help veterans.”