FAYETTEVILLE -- Administrators told veterans on Monday that it will take six months to verify the diagnoses of a pathologist who officials say did work while impaired.
"I have six months to live. What good is that to me?" said Harold Logan of Lavaca, a cancer patient of the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks.
The Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks sees an average of 53,000 patients a year. The system also operates community-based outpatient clinics in Fort Smith, Harrison, Ozark in Arkansas; Branson and Mount Vernon in Missouri; and Jay, Okla.
Veterans and family members with questions about the pathology review at the Veterans Healthcare Center of the Ozarks can call a hot line at (866) 388-5428 and locally at (479) 582-7995.
Logan was among the people who attended a public meeting Monday about the government's investigation into the pathologist's work.
The pathologist at the system's hospital in Fayetteville is known to have misdiagnosed at least seven cases, administrators said at a June 18 news conference. At least one of those misdiagnosed cases proved fatal, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has said.
The doctor was dismissed in April for working while impaired, according to administrators. He had been suspended previously for being impaired in March 2016, but he returned to work that October after counseling and after a check of his work found no errors.
He was again taken off clinical work in October 2017 after what the hospital described as a second instance of working while impaired. His dismissal in April came after a personnel review.
All 19,794 veterans or family members whose cases were handled by the pathologist were sent letters that a review is underway, according to Kelvin L. Parks, interim medical center director at the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks. More than one test was performed on some of the patients, requiring double-checking of more than 30,000 samples.
About 2,500 cases have been reviewed so far, and the system will sign a contract with a university-based medical system within days to provide pathologists to arrive on-site to review cases full time, Parks said. Another such contract will likely be signed within two weeks with another university-based system in a bordering state, he said.
The pace of review should increase considerably, Parks said, since the cases checked so far were done by pathologists who volunteered in addition to their regular duties. Every case will be reviewed by a pathologist from outside the Fayetteville-based system, Parks said.
The Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks serves veterans in 23 counties in Northwest Arkansas, southwest Missouri and eastern Oklahoma.
Dr. Robert Morris Levy of Fayetteville said Monday in a telephone interview that he was the pathologist who was dismissed. He confirmed he worked while impaired with alcohol in 2016 but said he did not work while impaired after that.
"I was fired because I was arrested for DWI by an overzealous police officer," Levy said. He ran an errand to the post office on Dickson Street in Fayetteville and walked from the parking lot with an unsteady gait because of a knee injury, he said. When he returned to his car, he was given a field sobriety test and failed because of the knee problem and because the test was administered on a slope, he said.
Fayetteville police provided an electronic copy of the report of Levy's arrest on March 1. It makes no mention of any complaint by Levy regarding his knee. The report says Levy's speech was "very slurred." It also says Levy was taken to a level portion of the parking lot for the field sobriety test and that he failed the portion of the test involving the ability to follow a finger with eye motions.
The pathologist was fired in April while his case awaited review. Levy said Monday that he was still working at the time of his arrest in March, but Parks said the pathologist had not returned from his October suspension.
After his arrest, it was assumed he had relapsed, Levy said.
The Fayetteville-based health care system can neither confirm nor deny that Levy is the pathologist involved because it's a personnel matter, Wanda Shull, a spokesman with the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks, said Monday afternoon.
Parks took questions for more than an hour Monday at a meeting in the system's auditorium in Fayetteville. The crowd of at least 150 consisted almost exclusively of veterans or family members who had received letters telling them their cases were under review. That was according to a show of hands when Parks asked how many there had received a letter.
Most of the audience's questions regarded how anyone in the pathologist's position of responsibility could work impaired without anyone noticing or taking action. Parks told the crowd that the system's handling of the matter is the subject of a separate investigation by the federal Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General.
The cases under review are prioritized by risk, Parks told the crowd. Tests for the most serious possible diagnoses, such as prostate biopsies for cancer, will be reviewed first, he said. Other risky conditions earmarked for priority are CT-guided needle biopsies, breast biopsies and endoscopies.
"Did you guys kill my mother?" asked Crystal George of Colcord, Okla. Her mother, Sharon Thomas, 63, died of cancer in December after George persuaded her to seek a test outside of the veterans hospital, she said. By that time, her mother's cancer was in its final stages, George said.
Parks told George that he was aware of her mother's specific case and that the review of it was expedited.
None of the expense of the review is being billed to patients, Parks said after the meeting. There is no definite timeline on the inspector general's review of the circumstances of the pathologist's actions and oversight of him by administrators, he said.
Juanita Harris, who identified herself at the meeting as a former secretary in the system's pathology department, said this was not the first time problems came to light in that department. She said she reported problems such as plans to improperly dispose of samples, adding that they were ignored. Parks said that was not during his tenure and that any employee reporting a problem now would be protected from reprisals.
A Section on 07/10/2018
Print Headline: Case reviews to take 6 months, vets told; Pathologist: No impaired work after ’16