Last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs paid out $91.7 million in medical malpractice claims — the most in at least 12 years, according to the Government Accountability Office. That represented more than 1,500 malpractice claims against VA providers, which actually represented a leveling-off after a 33-percent increase between 2005 and 2010.

The VA says that awards for doctor errors such as misdiagnosis, delayed treatment, medication errors and surgeries on the wrong body part naturally vary from year to year. It defends the jump in payouts by pointing to one especially high award — $17.5 million award to a 49-year-old vet who was totally disabled after complications during a tooth extraction. The agency also points out that its average malpractice rate isn’t so different from the national average.

While all that may be true, excuses aren’t enough for our vets. Therefore the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is currently holding hearings on the quality of care at VA hospitals. In addition to doctor errors generally, the committee will scrutinize an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in one VA hospital, four preventable deaths at another, and reports that poor sterilization procedures may have exposed some vets to infectious diseases — including HIV.

Representative Jeff Miller of Florida, who chairs the committee, believes that internal accountability is a major problem within the VA. He pointed to $150 million in bonuses paid out to VA healthcare providers in 2011, some of whom appear to have been demonstrably incompetent, such as a radiologist who was allegedly unable to read a simple mammogram.

“The rapid rise in malpractice judgments against VA mirrors the emerging pattern of preventable veteran deaths and other patient safety issues at VA hospitals,” he said.

The VA employs some 19,000 doctors and operates 152 hospitals. Last year, it treated 5.6 million veterans — 32 percent more than in 2002. At the same time, the vets entering the VA health system since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are more likely to have complex conditions, battle wounds and mental illnesses that are harder and more costly to treat.

“It’s the largest health-care system in the U.S., and they do an incredible amount of good work,” said a spokesperson for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City. “However,” he added, “there are so many more things they could do in terms of oversight that they don’t appear to be doing now.”

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