Hundreds of veterans suffered harm or died from medical mistakes termed "adverse events" while receiving care from the Department of Veterans Affairs last year, according to new data obtained by NBC.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, NBC found 575 of the estimated 6 million patients annually treated by the department were affected by adverse events, up 74 percent from 330 in 2010. The VA did not disclose details or individual outcomes.
Thirty-four of those cases happened in Los Angeles – the second-highest of any VA facility in the country. Now, the system, already under fire for long wait times and other alleged misconduct, is again facing criticism for the spike in these incidents.
“Adverse event can be anything from a death to serious injury that can occur because of something the VA did or did not do,” said Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, which has been probing problems in the VA medical care system.
“There are going to be issues,” Miller said. “The problem is what does the VA do when they occur?”
Some families are also lashing out at the VA.
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“They lied, they misled,” said Maureen Ciarolla, whose 83-year-old father died at a VA hospital in Pittsburgh in 2011.
Her father, John, was an 83-year-old Korean War Veteran receiving in-patient treatment when he contracted Legionella disease and died within weeks.
The VA hospital initially denied Legionella was the cause, only later acknowledging there had been an outbreak at the Pittsburgh facility that caused several deaths.
“How does a person, a medical professional, make those kinds of medical decisions for anyone, let alone veterans,” Ciarrolla said.
In a statement, the VA said in part “Whether it’s Pittsburgh or elsewhere in our country, our commitment is the same: to provide the very best care to our deserving veterans.”
The statement did not elaborate or offer an explanation for the increase in adverse events in the last few years. The department has declined to specify the nature of the incidents, or detail how many resulted in death.
Gainesville, Florida had the most number of adverse events, according to the data, with 40 since the final quarter of 2013. Los Angeles was next with 34. Then Pittsburgh with 28.
The VA declined to provide specific information about the adverse events reported by its Los Angeles facilities.
Congressman Miller said the VA had stonewalled his committee from getting information.
In recent months, with the VA facing increasing criticism, its secretary resigned and President Barack Obama has nominated a replacement.
Scott MacFarlane, investigative reporter for News4 in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.