Wednesday, August 26, 2009

WRAL-TV: N.C. Gulf War Veteran Among those who Receive VA's Errant ALS Letter

Beau Minnick

Web Editor: Kathy Hanrahan

Former Army Sgt. Samuel Hargrove, of Henderson, remembers the feeling he got when he opened a letter on Sunday from The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It was a notification that he had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease.

“It really felt like the weight of the world had fallen upon my soul,” Hargrove said. “I started crying and wondering why no one had ever told this to me before.”

Like some other Gulf War veterans, Hargrove, 42, has some neurological problems. He suffers from chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and narcolepsy.

After talking with other veterans in a resource center and online, Hargrove discovered he was among a group of veterans who received the letters erroneously.

With all the other symptoms he has, now Hargrove questions whether he has ALS, too. He wants the VA to pay for a test.

“I don’t want to see anyone else go through this kind of suffering from a mistake again,” Hargrove said.

VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts said the agency will individually apologize to those veterans who received the letters in error.

The veterans also will receive an explanation about how "this unfortunate and regrettable error" occurred and reassurances that the letters do not confirm diagnoses of the fatal neurological disease, she said. Roberts did not say whether the agency has determined how the error occurred.

VA employees were still thumbing through case files, trying to determine exactly how many veterans mistakenly received letters intended to inform sufferers of ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, of benefits available to them or surviving spouses and children.

"We understand we made a mistake," Roberts said. "We had every good intention.”

Roberts said the VA mailed more than 1,800 letters last week and has been notified by fewer than 10 veterans who received the letters in error. However, a Gulf War veterans group that provides information, support and referrals about illnesses to military members estimates at least 1,200 veterans received the letters by mistake.

Denise Nichols, vice president of the National Gulf War Resource Center, said panicked veterans in at least a dozen states have contacted her group.

ALS is a rapidly progressive disease that attacks the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscles. It is usually fatal within five years.

Veterans like Hargrove and former Air Force reservist Gale Reid in Montgomery, Ala., were initially suspicious of the letters, but went through the pain of not knowing whether they had ALS.

Reid said she incurred about $3,000 worth of medical expenses securing a second opinion from a civilian doctor. Reid hopes the VA will pay for the tests, but Roberts said she had to check on any reimbursements.

Jim Bunker, president of the veterans group, said someone at the VA told him the mistake was caused by a coding error in which veterans with undiagnosed neurological disorders were inadvertently assigned the code for ALS. The VA uses more than 8,000 codes for various diseases and illnesses, he said.

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