Veteran patients crowded into a town hall meeting Monday morning at the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks in Fayetteville demanding answers about a Department of Veterans Affairs pathologist recently fired for working while impaired.
The impaired pathologist has been identified by media as Dr. Robert Morris Levy of Fayetteville.
Officials previously admitted pathology reports Levy wrote were wrong. They again assured concerned veterans an external review is underway to determine just how many pathology reports are flawed.
The hospital auditorium was filled to capacity with officials, medical staff, and veterans, some in bandages, some tethered to oxygen, or in wheelchairs, including Harold Lindsey, a Navy veteran from Springdale.
"I’m one of the few that got caught, diagnosed wrong," he says. "I've come to find out what in the world is going on, and what they’re gonna do."
Lindsey is one of seven veterans so far misdiagnosed by Levy. The VA is conducting an external review of all associated cases, 33,000 for 19,800 veterans tracing back 12 years. More than 5,000 veterans have since died. One death so far has been linked to mistakes made by the pathologist, but no details have been offered.
The VA says 3,000 cases have been reviewed so far.
U.S. Army Korean veteran Jess Pair of Fort Smith says he was tested by Levy several years ago, and all the results were negative, no cancer. Or so he thought.
"So now I am looking at having them redone," Pair says, "to make sure these growths I have on my lung and liver are really benign and not serious."
Marlene Keahey also came to the meeting — alone. Her husband, a Vietnam navy veteran, died three years ago. She and more than 19,000 others just received notice by the VA that their pathology reports are being screened for errors.
"I just want to know why," Keahey says tearfully.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced the news June 18th at a press conference attended by three members of Arkansas's congressional delegation. None were present at this town hall meeting, although they dispatched official representatives to observe the proceedings.
The pathologist was first discovered to be impaired in March of 2016. He completed treatment, and later returned to clinical care. He relapsed, was removed from practice in October and subsequently fired April 13. The VA will not disclosed the identity of the pathologist, due to federal health privacy laws. But late Monday, the Associated Press reported the pathologist is Dr. Robert Morris Levy of Fayetteville. According to public records, Levy is a 1992 graduate of the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago.
Kelvin Parks, the interim medical director at the hospital, told the town hall meeting audience the independent review will take six months to complete; case follow ups will be prioritized and dispatched. Parks, who recently replaced outgoing director Bryan Matthews, apologized multiple times to veterans and their families in the audience.
"As a veteran, as a [one-time] patient at this hospital, I want to say I am sorry that this has happened," Parks says. "This is something I own, VHCSO as a family owns, and we will get it right, the answers that you deserve.
During the town hall meeting, one veteran who did not identify himself stood up pointing to what he described as a broken chain of command at the Fayetteville VA.
"My question is what systems are in place so this never happens again?"
Parks responded by saying this incident will cause VA hospitals across the country to scrutinize their pathology departments for improvement to prevent medical errors.
Several veterans brought along hired attorneys to the town hall meeting. But Lisa Breun with the Little Rock Regional VA Benefit Office assured them the department already has a mechanism in place to compenstate veterans for pain and suffering.
"Some people will want to turn to filing a tort claim," Breun says, "but I wanted to let you know that the VA is already set up with a law to protect veterans in this sort of situation called Title 38 USC 1151."
Breun encouraged any veteran identified as having a false pathology report, even for non-service connected diagnoses, to file Title 38 paperwork to obtain financial compensation, which she says is also available to families and children of deceased veterans, under dependent and indemnity claims.
Towards the end of the meeting, Vietnam veteran Harold Logan expressed deep frustration.
"Right now I’ve been diagnosed with three to six months to live," Logan says. "What's going to happen to my family?"
Logan later disclosed to Arkansas Public Media that he's been diagnosed with five different types of cancer. He, too, received a letter from the VA stating his pathology reports are under review.
More than 3,000 impacted veterans have contacted the VA's crisis call center at 1-866-388-5428 set up specifically to field queries.
After the town hall meeting, acting chief of staff Dr. Anurag Mehta says the hospital will quickly accommodate any veteran with false negative pathology reports providing diagnostics and treatment if needed.
"We will do whatever it takes to take care of them," Mehta says. The Fayetteville VA operates six satellite clinics in Northwest Arkansas, southwestern Missouri and northeastern Oklahoma. It saw 53,000 patients last year.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.