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VA's Top 2012 Malpractice Claim: Brain Injury from Dental Surgery

When it comes to our nation’s veterans, nothing but the best medical care will do. Unfortunately, we don’t always live up to our values. According to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Veterans Affairs paid out $91.7 million in medical malpractice claims last year — a frightening, substantial jump. While claims naturally vary from year to year, the GAO reports that malpractice cases skyrocketed by 33 percent between 2005 and 2010.

In its defense, the VA pointed to a single, $17.5 million-claim last year. The award — the largest against the VA in some 12 years — was awarded to a 59-year-old Marine Corps vet who went to a VA medical center in 2007 to have eight teeth extracted. That surgery resulted in a catastrophic brain injury that left him permanently incapacitated.

According to his attorney, the dental surgeon utterly failed to respond to complications that arose during the extractions. The vet had several known risk factors for stroke, and his blood pressure dropped dangerously several times during the surgery. The surgeon didn’t send the man to the emergency room, however, but continued extracting teeth.

The vet had a stroke while driving home, which caused the brain injury. He was left with limited vocabulary, severe mental deficits, negative personality changes and permanent disabilities so devastating that we will require round-the-clock care for the rest of his life.

While this was an unusual case, unfortunately it appears to represent a dangerous trend at the VA. The House Veterans Affairs Committee is currently holding hearings to scrutinize a number of preventable medical errors. At the top of the list is the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 2011 that killed at least five vets and sickened 21 others at a VA hospital in Pittsburgh. They will also investigate two fatal overdoses and two suicides at a VA facility in Atlanta, and reports of pervasive sterilization problems that may have exposed vets to infectious diseases — including HIV.

“It’s the largest health-care system in the U.S., and they do an incredible amount of good work,” says the deputy director of national veterans service at the Veterans of Foreign Wars here in Kansas City. “However, there are so many more things they could do in terms of oversight that they don’t appear to be doing now. As a consequence, sometimes you wind up with poor results that were avoidable.”

Source: Claims Journal, “Veterans Malpractice Payouts Reach 12-Year High on Taxpayer Tab,” Kathleen Miller, Sept. 9, 2013