FAYETTEVILLE -- At least one death 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, announced Monday by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs administrators and members of the Arkansas congressional delegation.
"We are treating this like a national disaster," Kelvin L. Parks, interim medical director at the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks, said at a Monday morning news conference in Fayetteville. The pathologist worked there from 2005 to October 2017.
Veterans and family members with questions about the pathology review at the Veterans Healthcare Center of the Ozarks can call a hot line at (866) 388-5428 and locally at (479) 582-7995.
He was taken off clinical work in October and dismissed in April after a review of his cases.
The pathologist, whose name was withheld, was dismissed because of his impairment, Parks said. The doctor was one of two pathologists at the center. He analyzed tissue samples.
He had been suspended in March 2016 for working while impaired, but he successfully completed a recovery program and was monitored upon resuming his duties the following October, Parks said.
The pathologist's records for the previous year also were checked, and no problems were found, administrators said.
The doctor had no record of problems before 2016, his supervisors said.
Administrators conducted a review of 900 recent cases after the second instance of working while impaired in October 2017. The review found seven missed diagnoses, including one that was fatal.
Thirty pathologists from around the state and region have volunteered to review the doctor's cases, Parks said.
Pathologists who are not from the Veterans Affairs Department will review at least half the cases. The 30 pathologists will review the highest-risk cases first.
Tissue samples from tests are routinely sealed and preserved, allowing an effective re-examination, said Dr. Margie Scott of the Central Arkansas Veterans Health Care System, a pathologist who is overseeing the review.
Letters to 19,794 veterans or family members whose cases were handled by the pathologist in question are going out in the mail, Parks and other administrators said.
All his cases will be examined again, even those as far back as 2005 and in the 5,250 cases in which the patient is no longer alive.
Phone banks were up and running Monday morning to take calls from concerned patients.
The Northwest Arkansas veterans system sees an average of 53,000 patients a year. The system also operates community-based outpatient clinics in Fort Smith, Harrison, Ozark in Arkansas; Branson and Mount Vernon in Missouri; and Jay, Okla.
"A family in my district lost a loved one because of a missed diagnosis," said Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who represents the 4th Congressional District.
Administrators said they could not disclose details of an individual patient's case.
At least two victims of missed diagnoses were at the news conference.
"I came in three years ago with a growth on my nose and was told it was benign," said Darrell Darner of Gentry.
"When it didn't go away, I went to a private dermatologist. She took one look at it and told me it was probably cancer. She took a biopsy and it was. Now it will take reconstructive surgery on my nose."
Darner, who is a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said his group will do all it can to inform veterans of developments.
Other veterans groups such as the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the American Legion and the Marine Corps League also sent representatives.
Charles W. Adkins Jr., commander of the Fayetteville chapter of the Order of the Purple Heart, said his and other groups will use their social media networks to share information.
Adkins pressed administrators at the news conference to replace the pathologist with someone qualified as soon as possible and to not let a backlog of new cases develop while the review is underway.
Parks assured the groups that the hospital would keep up with incoming cases.
Monday's news conference was held at the veterans hospital in Fayetteville at the insistence of Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., who represents the 3rd District, according to other delegation members.
The state's congressional delegation was first briefed in Sen. John Boozman's Washington office Thursday, and they made the decision that a public announcement was needed to provide an opportunity for veterans and the press to ask questions, Westerman said.
Boozman, Womack and Westerman attended Monday; the other three members of the state's congressional delegation could not attend but sent staff members.
Thousands of veterans treated at the hospital either have since moved away, had traveled to the area to get care or were passing through Northwest Arkansas when they needed care, Womack said.
He said he expects the review will involve cases nationwide.
"This is chilling news to the thousands who used this facility," Womack said. Boozman agreed, and he was one of several at the event who called the situation "tragic."
"We have failed," Boozman said. "I appreciated the forthrightness with which that failure has been admitted and assure you that those responsible will be held accountable."
The Veterans Affairs Department will host town hall-style meetings to share more information as it becomes available, Parks said.
Those meeting places and times are not finalized yet, he said.
Veterans will also be told of their legal options and be given new medical information, Parks said when asked whether veterans would be entitled to compensation for the stress involved and for possible health problems that a correct diagnosis could have prevented.
There is no good estimate yet on how long the review of the cases will take, but it will certainly take months, Parks and Scott said.
The nature of the dismissed pathologist's 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.
"I am truly sorry and sad and disgusted," Parks said during the news conference, his voice quivering.
"I apologize to all our veterans and their family members."
Dr. Margie Scott (center) of the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System and Kelvin L. Parks, interim medical director at the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks (right) answer questions Monday at the hospital in Fayetteville.
Metro on 06/19/2018
Print Headline: Death linked to work of impaired VA pathologist