Veterans Forced to Travel Thousands of Miles For Life-Saving Care | NBC Southern California

Veterans Forced to Travel Thousands of Miles For Life-Saving Care

Diagnosed a year ago with a terminal lung disease by his VA doctor, David Brayton needs a double lung transplant as soon as possible or he will die

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    NEWSLETTERS

    David Brayton joined the United States Army in the 1970s. In exchange for his service, the U.S. Government promised him healthcare for life. It’s medical treatment that Brayton desperately needs to stay alive. But the VA’s policy regarding transplants could end up costing him his life. Joel Grover reports for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 31, 2016. (Published Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016)

    Following in his father's footsteps, David Brayton joined the United States Air Force in the 1970s. 

    In exchange for his service, the U.S. Government promised him health care for life. It's medical treatment that Brayton desperately needs to stay alive.

    "My lungs are hardening right now," said Brayton. "They're effectively turning into rock."

    Diagnosed a year ago with a terminal lung disease by his VA doctor, Brayton needs a double lung transplant as soon as possible or he will die.

    "I'll suffocate to death," said Brayton, who now requires oxygen 24 hours a day and is confined to his bed most of the time. "I don't know whether I'm waiting to live or to die." 

    But the VA's policy regarding transplants could end up costing the veteran his life, according to a NBC4 I-Team investigation, done with NBC stations in Atlanta and Minneapolis.

    Instead of sending veterans to a local hospital for their transplant surgery, Veterans Health Administration requires that its patients travel to one of 13 VA Transplant Centers scattered throughout the United States, which are either VA hospitals or private hospitals with which the VA contracts. None of the Centers are in Southern California. That means the Braytons would have to travel 1,200 miles to Seattle or 2,000 miles to Madison, Wisconsin.

    "It makes no sense on any level to move 2,000 miles away," said Brayton.

    The VA told the family that they should be prepared for a yearlong stay once they arrive at one of the two medical centers that perform lung transplants.

    "Who's going to take care of our dogs? What about our son?" said Courtney Brayton, David's wife.

    And because David, who is hooked up to oxygen tanks 24-7, can't fly commercially, the Braytons say the VA will have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to fly him on a medical transport. The VA is also required to pay the cost of housing the family during their long stay.

    "I'm angry because there's a bureaucracy that's failing me and thousands of other veterans," said Brayton.

    The Braytons have been asking the VA for permission to have the transplant surgery at a hospital close to home. There are at least two world-class hospitals in the Los Angeles area, UCLA and Cedars-Sinai, capable of performing the life-saving operation.

    But Ann Brown, Medical Director of VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, told the family in an email that "we have reviewed the National VA policy and practice related to transplants. The practice requires transplants to be completed by a VA National Transplant Center."

    "They're uprooted from their homes. They're uprooted from their jobs. They're uprooted from their families," explained Jamie McBride, a manger in the VA's Transplant Program and a whistleblower about problems with the system.

    McBride has shared his concerns with members of Congress and the VA's Office of Inspector General. In letters and documents, McBride has said "transplant in the VA is a disaster." He called for major changes to be made.

    "I've gone through every channel that we can. And the reason I'm here speaking about it is because the problem has not been solved," said McBride.

    McBride told government officials that "uprooting veterans from their surroundings" could cause "potential loss of life from delayed care."

    Pam Moore believes his husband was one of those veterans who died due to problems with the VA Transplant Program.

    "I have this feeling and it's a horrible feeling, but he died unnecessarily," said Moore.

    Pam's husband, John, was a military policeman who got hepatitis C from an operation in the Army. He needed a liver transplant to survive.

    The couple lived in Big Lake, Minnesota, but the VA wouldn't pay for the operation at the University of Minnesota hospital. Instead, they made him move to Houston, more than 1,000 miles from his home. John died in 2015 after waiting three years to get that transplant in Texas.

    "My husband should've been home, not in Texas," said Moore. "I'm very lost without him."

    "What our data shows is geography is a clear barrier," said Dr. David Goldberg, Medical Director for Living Donor Liver Transplantation at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-author of a study that investigated the VA Transplant Program.

    Dr. Goldberg's study found a "greater risk of death among veterans living farthest from designated VA Transplant Centers."

    "Veterans that were more than 100 miles away from the closest transplant center are disadvantaged. They have less access to lifesaving transplant, which directly then correlates to a higher chance of dying," said Dr. Goldberg.

    The VA told NBC11 in Atlanta that their transplant outcomes "are favorable when compared nationally by Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients."

    Courtney Brayton said her family can't just pick up and move their entire life thousands of miles away. And she has been pleading with the VA in Los Angeles for help, including speaking to one of the health system's top executives.

    "She said, we will find a way to get this paid for locally," said Courtney Brayton.

    But after a year of waiting, the VA just informed David that he's "not eligible" for a transplant. Among the reasons cited, the VA claims Brayton has been "noncompliant with attending medical appointments." But Brayton's VA medical records show he "has consistently showed up for follow-up appointments."

    NBC4 called and emailed VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System eight times asking to speak about David Brayton's case. We were told the VA was unable to comment. NBC4 also emailed the VA specific questions about the VA Transplant Program and David Brayton, but the VA only provided a generic statement.

    In the statement, the VA wrote, "We at VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System (VAGLAHS) are committed to providing high-quality, safe and compassionate care to our Veterans. We are proud of our many successful programs and services, state-of-the-art technology, amazing academic affiliations, cutting-edge research, and world-class patient care, to include our facility transplant services as part of VA's National Transplant Program.

    David and Courtney Brayton said the VA system has been anything but compassionate in their case. David doesn't know how long he has to live but is still hoping a transplant will save his life.

    "Something has to change. Something has to give before my husband dies," said Courtney.

    COMPLETE VA GREATER LOS ANGELES HEALTH CARE SYSTEM STATEMENT:

    "We at VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System (VAGLAHS) are committed to providing high-quality, safe and compassionate care to our Veterans. We are proud of our many successful programs and services, state-of-the-art technology, amazing academic affiliations, cutting-edge research, and world-class patient care, to include our facility transplant services as part of VA's National Transplant Program.

    "Although we cannot speak to any individual patient's situation due to privacy concerns, we can tell you that all Veterans in our health care system are treated as individuals with the utmost respect. VAGLAHS incorporates intensive pre-screening visits with clinical leadership reviews, evaluations, and clear direction on policy and protocol regarding any potential pre-existing health condition(s). These careful and comprehensive evaluations are in place to ensure successful outcomes for our Veterans who are experiencing significant health issues. At VAGLAHS, our goal is to provide our nation's heroes with the highest-quality and most comprehensive health care they have so richly earned and deserve.

    "For more information on VA's National Transplant Program, please visit our website."

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