FAYETTEVILLE — At least one death appears to have resulted from a missed diagnosis by a veterans hospital pathologist who worked while impaired, according to the first findings in a review of almost 20,000 cases that will take months, Veterans Department administrators and members of the Arkansas congressional delegation said Monday.
"We are treating this like a national disaster," Kelvin L. Parks, interim medical director at the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks, said during a Monday morning news conference.
The pathologist, whose name was withheld, was dismissed because of his impairment, Parks said. The doctor began work at the hospital in 2005 and was one of two pathologists at the center.
Thirty pathologists from around the state and region volunteered to review the impaired doctor's cases, he said. Pathologists who are not from the Veterans Department will review at least half the cases. The 30 pathologists will review the highest-risk cases first.
Letters to 19,794 veterans or family members whose tissue samples were reviewed by the pathologist are going out in the mail, Parks and other administrators said.
Initial results showed seven missed diagnoses out of 900 checked, according to Parks and Dr. Margie Scott of the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, a pathologist who is overseeing the review.
"A family in my district lost a loved one because of a missed diagnosis," said Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs, who represents south Arkansas' 4th Congressional District. The state's congressional delegation was briefed in Washington, D.C., in Sen. John Boozman's office Thursday.
This was the second time the pathologist was discovered being impaired while diagnosing cases, according to hospital administrators. The first time was in 2016.
He was suspended, put through a recovery program and monitored upon resuming his duties. Meanwhile, his records for the previous year were checked and no problems were found, administrators said. The doctor had worked there since 2005 with no previous record of problems, his supervisors said. After the second instance in October of 2017, he was suspended again and later fired.
Cases all over the country are involved, said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. Veterans treated at the regional hospital since 2005 have since moved or were treated as they were passing through Northwest Arkansas.
The hospital sees about 53,000 patients each year.
Monday's news conference was held at the veterans hospital in Fayetteville at the urging of Womack, who represents Northwest Arkansas' 3rd District, according to other delegation members. Boozman, Womack and Westerman attended Monday, and the other three members of the state's congressional delegation who could not attend sent staff members.
In a statement, the delegation said the doctor's actions "put the health of our veterans at risk and will not be tolerated.
“Unfortunately, at this time, we don’t know the extent of this doctor’s misconduct. We call on the VA to notify patients whose cases were evaluated by this pathologist to thoroughly and expeditiously review their results so veterans can get the appropriate care they earned. Those impacted deserve nothing less.
The nature of the impairment was not disclosed at the news conference because it is a personnel matter, Parks said. U.S. Attorney Duane Kees of the Western District of Arkansas was present and confirmed his office has the matter under investigation but would not speculate on what, if any, charges might be involved.
Spokesmen for veterans groups present, including the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said they will use their social media networks to get out as much information as they can as soon as they can.
Read Tuesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.