FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Confusion, anger, disappointment and even tears filled an auditorium at the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks on Monday as veterans sought answers about a doctor that the hospital alleged last month was working while "impaired."
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced in June that it would review 33,000 cases that the pathologist had a role in overseeing after he was allegedly found impaired in October 2017 and then fired in April 2018.
An initial review of 900 cases found seven misdiagnoses.
The town hall drew more than 150 veterans and family members who asked questions of Kelvin Parks, interim medical center director, who opened the meeting by expressing regret and sympathy to those affected, and their families.
"To my fellow veterans, I say, 'I'm sorry that this has happened,'" said Parks, who was named interim director in January. "This is something that I own, VHSO as a family owns, and we will get it right. We will get you your answers that you deserve."
No new misdiagnoses
As of Monday, 3,000 cases, or 9 percent of the total, had been reviewed. No more misdiagnoses have been found, and Parks said the full review should take about six months to complete. Half of the cases will be reviewed by VA doctors at other clinics and hospitals, and the other half will be reviewed by doctors at academic affiliates, which Parks said should begin working within the next two weeks.
As the barrage of questions from the crowd kept coming, one theme emerged: How did this happen, and what's being done to ensure it doesn't happen again? Some of those who spoke also questioned whether VA officials were telling veterans and the public everything they knew about the pathologist, and what the VA knew.
Parks said there was a "vulnerability" in the internal case review process that sometimes allowed supervisors to review their own cases. Moving forward, the hospital will have someone from the quality control department manage and oversee all case reviews.
While the hospital has not disclosed the name of the pathologist, The Associated Press reported Monday that the doctor is Robert Morris Levy, who has denied being impaired on duty and said the hospital fired him for a DUI that was eventually dismissed.
'It gets to you'
U.S. Navy veteran Alan Reed, 54, said he was startled and extremely worried when he received a letter from the VA saying his cases were under a second review. He's had four biopsies for four different procedures.
He said he is is still waiting to find out if any of his cases were among those that were misdiagnosed and added that the process has taken a psychological toll on him.
"It gets to you," Reed said. "You can't stop thinking about it."
Despite the setback, Reed said he still has confidence in the VA and wants the Arkansas congressional delegation to step up and do something to fix it. Several members of the delegation, while not there themselves, sent representatives to monitor the meeting.
Kay Kitterman, 59, a U.S. Navy veteran originally from Neosho, Missouri, who now lives in Fayetteville, said she isn't affected by a case review but came to the town hall after hearing about it and wanting to meet with VA administrators and congressional representatives.
Kitterman said the biggest problem at the VA hospital is the complaint reporting structure, and worried that details were being covered up via a process that she dubbed an "underground basement."
Kitterman said, "The employees know a lot of things that go on but they are in fear of their jobs or retaliation against them if they speak up."
Changing that culture, Kitterman said, can only come through better leadership, policies and procedures.
"You need more accountability and oversight. There is zero oversight here," Kitterman said. "You need more people who are going to step up and have zero tolerance for bullying and harassment."
Asked if Parks can be that leader, Kitterman said: "That remains to be seen. I want him to be the man that will come in and fix this. He was brought into this mess to clean it up. I think if he really wants to enact real change, then he will listen to veterans and employees."
The town hall was also attended by former VA employees, including Juanita Harris, 56, who served in the U.S. Army for 20 years. She received a letter from the VA and still isn't sure which case of hers is being reviewed.
She worked in the hospital's pathology laboratory as a secretary from 2002-2010 and claimed she witnessed improper procedures. After Monday's town hall, she said her confidence in the hospital isn't any higher.
"I'm not feeling any better," Harris said. "Would you want your family coming to a VA facility for a surgical result with a history of this one?"