SAN ANTONIO, Texas - An army veteran has been given permission to have a life-saving transplant at a private hospital near his home – rather than travel 1,200 miles to a Department of Veterans Affairs transplant center.
The about-face by the VA comes just days after a joint investigation by KARE 11 and other TEGNA television stations questioned why veterans were being forced to crisscross the country to have transplants.
Watch original investigation: The VA Organ Transplant System
“A tremendous blessing,” said veteran Aaron Arch, “for so many reasons I can’t even name them all.”
The retired army medic from San Antonio, Texas is one of the veterans profiled in KARE 11’s report, “Distance, Delays & Denial.” The report also questioned why the VA refused to do some transplants, even when private hospitals considered the patients to be “good” candidates for the procedures.
Arch’s lungs were severely damaged after breathing in something toxic while serving in Iraq. He needs a lung transplant and, until now, the VA was forcing him to travel more than 1,200 miles from his home to get the transplant at their facility in Madison, WI.
Just days after KARE 11 shared his story, the VA reversed itself and agreed to pay for his transplant to be done at a private hospital in his home town.
While declining to discuss Aaron Arch’s case, the head of the VA’s transplant system defended the program during an interview in response to the TEGNA investigation.
“The infrastructure has been built to provide timely and high quality care and services to the veteran,” said Dr. William Gunnar, the VA’s National Director Surgery.
“It’s easy to criticize. It’s hard to provide a solution,” he added.
Veterans, outside experts, and even a VA insider turned whistleblower, have criticized the VA for routinely requiring sick veterans and their families to travel long distances to one of the VA’s 13 designated transplant facilities. Although they are spread across the nation, each facility only performs certain types of transplants. So, many veterans have to travel cross-country to receive life-saving operations that often can be performed at private hospitals nearby.
A study published in 2014 by the University of Pennsylvania found that the extended distance between veterans and their transplant facility increased the risk of death.
The VA disagrees with that finding. “So, I can tell you that the risks imposed by distance did not translate to a risk of death,” said Dr. Gunnar.
He said the VA has new data to back that up - but he can’t share it publicly yet. “It’s a study that we analyzed, I just did it within the last two weeks,” he added, “I hope to publish it.”
Dr. Gunnar also contends there is a greater potential risk for veterans who want to get transplants outside the VA, because of dual care concerns and the fact that private facilities and the VA don’t share a common electronic health record.
“That coordination of care is not a guarantee. That requires non-VA clinicians to communicate to VA clinicians…and as I said potentially issues around re-hospitalization, duplicated tests, duplicated medication. I don’t know.”
While Dr. Gunnar defends the present system, Aaron Arch’s case may be a sign that the VA is loosening restrictions on veterans who’d prefer to have their transplant performed closer to home outside the VA system.
In the wake of our investigation, KARE 11 has learned of 14 other veterans who have been given approval to have their transplant done in a private facility near their home.