Wednesday, August 26, 2009

CNN: VA to Apologize for Mistaken ALS Disease Notifications

Written by Ashley Hayes, CNN

(CNN) -- The Department of Veterans Affairs said Wednesday it will apologize to veterans who were mistakenly told they'd been diagnosed with a fatal neurological condition.

Letters were sent last week to 1,864 veterans and survivors, the VA said in a written statement. They were supposed to be sent to veterans with ALS -- also known as Lou Gehrig's disease -- to keep them apprised of expanding benefits eligibility.

"According to the records of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), you have a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)," said the letter, according to the National Gulf War Resource Center. "This letter tells you about VA disability compensation benefits that may be available to you."

But some who received the letters, like Brent Casey, do not have ALS. Casey, a disabled Army veteran from the first Gulf War, told CNN that when he received the letter, he was "just completely beside myself. Just floored. Went into a complete and total meltdown. I couldn't speak, couldn't -- I guess I was, truthfully, speechless."

After hearing from veterans who received the letter but do not have ALS, the VA immediately began reviewing individual claims files for all the recipients to determine who received the letter by mistake, agency spokeswoman Katie Roberts said in the statement. "VA employees are personally contacting these individuals to ensure they understand the letter should not be confused with a medical diagnosis of ALS, explain why they mistakenly received the letter and express VA's sincere apologies for the distress caused by this unfortunate and regrettable error."

"It's not right for it to happen this way," Casey said. "Regardless if it was the case that I was diagnosed with ALS, that would be the worst possible way for an organization to let an individual know."

Upon receiving the letter, some veterans sought a second opinion outside the VA, according to veterans' service organizations, paying for doctors' consultations out of their own pockets. The VA said it will reimburse those veterans for the costs.

In addition, the VA said it is reviewing its notification process to make sure a similar error doesn't happen again.

The AmVets service organization is "encouraged" by the VA's response to the situation, and pleased to see they caught the error, said spokesman Ryan Gallucci.

According to the VA:


Last September the Secretary of Veterans Affairs made amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) a presumptively compensable illness for all Veterans with 90 days or more of continuous active service in the military. As a result, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) can now pay disability compensation to Veterans with ALS. Their survivors are also eligible for VA benefits.

In an effort to provide Veterans this new and much-needed support, VA sent notification letters to Veterans with ALS advising them of their potential eligibility for disability compensation benefits. On August 13, 2009, VA sent outreach letters to 1,864 Veterans and survivors across the country. Unfortunately, VA made a coding error and a number of Veterans who should not have received this letter did. The Department is reviewing individual claims files for all the recipients of this letter to identify those who received it by mistake.

VA employees are calling Veterans and survivors to ensure that they understand the purpose of the letter, explain why they mistakenly received the letter, and express VA’s sincere apologies for the distress caused by this unfortunate and regrettable error.

Q & A:
Q: How many Veterans have been affected?
A: Approximately one third of the letters VA sent were miscoded.

Q: Will VA be issuing a formal apology?
A: Yes, the Department is calling all affected Veterans and will also be issuing them a formal letter of apology.

Q: Why did Veterans who do not have ALS get letters?
A: VA used data and information from its data base to identify Veterans diagnosed with ALS or who had filed a claim for ALS, but were not currently receiving disability compensation benefits for the condition. However, as a result of problems in the codes VA used to identify these Veterans, VA sent the letter to some Veterans who do not have ALS.

Q: What is VA doing to correct the mistake?
A: We are working to identify the specific problems that caused the misidentification of Veterans records. We will ensure any future data extracts for similar outreach purposes are properly formulated and independently validated to prevent these types of problems in the future.

Q: Will Veterans be reimbursed for medical expenses incurred?
A: VA will reimburse Veterans who incurred expenses for medical evaluations conducted as a result of receiving an erroneous notification.

Q: What will VA do to prevent this from happening again?
A: As a result of this incident, VA is creating a more rigorous process that includes thorough and careful screening of the data, comprehensive review and approval process that will include involvement from our stakeholders before release of notifications letters.
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