MINNEAPOLIS - Internal VA records obtained by KARE 11 reveal that veterans in Minnesota, Texas and possibly nationwide have been denied benefits and treatment for traumatic brain injuries by the Department of Veterans Affairs after exams by unqualified doctors and nurses.
“If it’s in Minneapolis, if it’s in Amarillo, where else is it?” asked Dr. Roy Marokus, until recently the Chief of the Compensation and Pension unit at the Thomas E. Creek VA Medical Center in Amarillo, Texas.
Following a KARE 11 investigation in August, the Minneapolis VA Medical Center acknowledged that it had used unqualified doctors to diagnose more than 300 veterans for traumatic brain injuries (TBI’s) in violation of VA policy.
At the time, Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) called upon the VA to conduct a nationwide review.
Now, internal VA emails in Texas reveal a broader review of improper TBI evaluations is underway and already has uncovered 70 cases in Amarillo alone in which veterans were examined by unqualified doctors.
After seeing the latest emails, KARE 11 has filed Freedom of Information requests asking for the number of veterans diagnosed by unqualified doctors at every VA hospital nationwide.
VA policy: Specialists required.
Traumatic brain injuries are often invisible, but debilitating. They’ve been called the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
VA policy requires that the initial diagnosis for TBI’s must be made by one of four specialists: neurosurgeons, neurologists, psychiatrists and physiatrists.
Records in Minneapolis, however, revealed repeated violations of that policy. Some initial TBI diagnoses were even done by a nurse practitioner, not a neurologist.
As a result, veterans were misdiagnosed and denied both TBI benefits and treatment.
Case study: Anton Welke
”It almost made me take my own life,” recalls Navy veteran Anton Welke of Plainview, Minnesota.
When he contemplated suicide and suspected lingering effects from a severe blow to the head he had received on the USS John C. Stennis, Welke went to the Minneapolis VA for help in 2012.
“He’s trying to tell them I need help, not I need money,“ his wife Tina remembers. ”I need help! Help me.”
In spite of his plea, records show Welke was originally denied TBI benefits and specialized treatment following an examination by a doctor who was not one of the required TBI specialists.
After the VA’s use of unqualified doctors was exposed in 2015, Welke got a new exam. As a result, he’s finally getting the specialized treatment he deserves.
“Without a doubt,” his wife remembers the specialist saying, “Without a doubt you have a traumatic brain injury. And thank you for your service.”
Texas veterans denied TBI benefits
In Texas, Dr. Roy Marokus worries about other misdiagnosed veterans.
“Think about what they have to deal with if they’re misdiagnosed,” Marokus said. “They’re out in never-never land. It’s a crime.”
Internal VA emails obtained by TEGNA Media reveal that on December 17, 2015, the VA Regional 17 Headquarters (“VISN 17”) in Arlington, Texas instructed Amarillo officials to review TBI exams which had not been done by the required specialists.
“Unqualified, uncertified TBI - traumatic brain injury - exams that were done by people who weren’t supposed to do it,” Dr. Marokus said during a recent interview.
Dr. Marokus said he received copies of the emails even though the exams at issue were done before he arrived in Amarillo in May, 2015. Because of patient privacy rules, Marokus did not reveal the names of individual veterans or the details of their cases.
The emails TEGNA obtained state that only about 70 of the improper TBI exams listed by VISN 17 happened in Amarillo, an indication that other Texas facilities are involved.
Dr. Marokus, a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Iraq, fears it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“It’s a hell of a lot of people. A hell of a lot,” he said in a recent interview. “Too many.”
Just days after granting that interview, he was demoted. Instead of heading the Compensation and Pension Unit, Dr. Marokus says he was ordered out of his office and is now confined to the hospital library.