WASHINGTON - Six deaths have been linked to delayed screenings for colorectal cancer at the veterans medical center in Columbia, S.C., the Veterans Affairs Department said Friday.
The VA's inspector general said in a recent report that delayed colonoscopies and other screenings were linked to malignancies found in 52 patients. The report did not go into detail about the seriousness of those cases.
VA spokesman Kevin McIver confirmed the six deaths Friday in response to questions from The Associated Press. He said the VA sent disclosure notices to 20 veterans or their families. Under department policies, such notices are required in cases involving serious injury or death. The remaining cases involving malignancies did not meet that threshold.
McIver and the VA's inspector general emphasized that a backlog in colorectal screenings built up in 2011 and 2012 has since been resolved.
McIver said that extra staff has been hired to meet demand and that clinical staff will contract out work to local health care providers whenever it's deemed necessary.
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. The VA requires all veterans at average or high risk for the cancer to be offered a screening.
The VA's inspector general determined that the William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center fell behind with its screenings because critical nursing positions went unfilled for months. It also found that only about $275,000 of $1 million provided to the hospital to alleviate the backlog had been used over the course of a year. The hospital had also made an effort to reduce the care provided to veterans by doctors outside the VA system, and such care had in the past been used to address backlogs.
The VA's inspector general also found that critical leadership positions at the hospital and the regional VA headquarters that oversee its works did not take "immediate and aggressive actions" to solve the problem.
While the hospital developed an action plan to deal with the backlog in January 2012, it did not lead to progress. The inspector general's report said an "adverse event" five months later prompted the hospital to re-evaluate and aggressively pursue eliminating the backlog, which was accomplished by October.
The IG's office said that nine patients or their families have filed lawsuits so far.
The VA said in a statement that when problems at its facilities occur, it conducts a prompt review and holds those responsible accountable.
"If employee misconduct or failure to meet performance standards is found to have been a factor, VA will take appropriate corrective action immediately," the statement read.