WASHINGTON, D.C. - Responding to disclosures that it used unqualified doctors to diagnose traumatic brain injuries, the Department of Veterans Affairs has announced plans to offer new TBI exams to nearly 25,000 veterans nationwide.
“It was a systemic national problem that we’ve identified that we are working to fix now,” David McLenachen, the VA’s Deputy Undersecretary for Disability Assistance, told KARE 11 during an interview in Washington Wednesday afternoon.
McLenachen said the VA has identified 40 different locations across the country where improper brain injury exams were done. They include facilities in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.
VA officials said they weren’t yet able to provide an exact breakdown of how many veterans were involved at each location.
The decision could lead to retroactive benefits dating back to 2007, officials said.
Traumatic brain injuries are often invisible but debilitating. Since they can be difficult to recognize, VA policy states that the initial diagnosis of TBI’s must be made by one of only four types of specialists, including neurosurgeons and neurologists.
But records show many VA facilities failed to fully implement the policy, denying thousands of veterans a fair chance at appropriate treatment and benefits.
“I wish I wasn’t here talking to you about this and that we had got it right the first time,” McLenachen told KARE 11’s A. J. Lagoe, “but I’m happy that we’ve identified this problem and we’re attacking it.”
Problems surfaced in Minnesota
The TBI exam problems first surfaced last year in Minnesota.
In a series of investigative reports, KARE 11 News documented cases of veterans who were denied TBI benefits after exams performed by medical staffers who weren’t qualified specialists.
In fact, records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that between 2010 and 2014 only one of the 21 medical professionals conducting initial TBI exams at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center was actually qualified according to VA’s own policy.
In one case, a veteran was examined by a nurse practitioner, not a neurologist.
At the time, records showed that more than 300 veterans were diagnosed by unqualified doctors in Minneapolis alone.
Following KARE 11’s original report on August 5, 2015, Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) called for a nationwide investigation.
"It's certainly possible if it happened in Minneapolis it's possible, and I would argue probable, it happened elsewhere," Walz said at the time.
On Wednesday, Walz applauded the VA announcement. “We’ve seen the VA respond to it and respond in a way that I think is appropriate,” he said, “getting people back in there correcting what was wrong. Getting care, getting compensation where it was needed and doing a full system wide evaluation.”
Widespread problems confirmed
Department of Veterans Affairs officials now say their internal review has identified an additional 24,841 veterans nationwide whose TBI exams were not done by the proper specialists.
“We’re going back and taking a look and providing them all an opportunity to have this,” McLenachen said. “It’s the only fair and right thing to do.”
In more than half of those cases the VA says veterans did receive a TBI diagnosis, but the severity of the injury may not have been assessed properly.
So far, officials say they’ve identified approximately 8,000 cases in which veterans were not diagnosed with TBI’s and, thus, were denied brain injury benefits.
Officials say veterans in both categories will be notified that they can request new evaluations, this time by qualified specialists.
As part of the plan, VA Secretary Robert McDonald has granted what’s called “equitable relief” to all of the veterans impacted by the improper TBI exams. McLenachen says clears the way for retroactive payments if a misdiagnosis is found.
Important help for veterans
The decision means more veterans like Anton Welke of Plainview, Minnesota, may soon be getting help.
“It’s a big thing to sit and wonder in your head, am I nuts?” Welke told KARE 11 last year.
The Navy veteran was originally denied TBI benefits and treatment after an exam in 2012 performed by a doctor who was not one of the approved specialists.
Welke says he found himself at his church, spending hours on his knees contemplating taking his life.
“I just had nothing left in me,” he remembers. ”I didn’t care no more. I was physically and mentally tired.”
“He’s trying to tell them I need help,” his wife Christina remembers. “Not ‘I need money,’ I need help! Help me!”
After KARE 11 began investigating in 2015, Welke was given a new exam.
”He actually did tests with me,” Anton said. “I wasn’t a number. Finally, I was actually getting care.”
And a new diagnosis.
“Without a doubt you have a traumatic brain injury,” his wife remembers the specialist saying. “And thank you for your service.”
That finding by a qualified TBI specialist threw open the doors at the VA previously closed.
Welke is now receiving treatment and cognitive therapy in the Minneapolis VA’s top notch Polytrauma Center, one of just five nationwide. He’s also begun receiving benefits payments.