The Department of Veterans Affairs this month agreed to pay $900,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of a Washington man who died in late 2012 after a VA scheduler failed to refer him promptly to specialized care for melanoma.
The settlement between the family of Cliff Douglass and the VA appears to be the largest payout for a wrongful death claim related to a case at VA Puget Sound since 2001, according to records obtained by the Center for Investigative reporting and The News Tribune through the Freedom of Information Act.
“I’m happy for the family that they have some closure,” said Tacoma attorney Jessica Holman Duthie, who represented the Sammamish man’s family. “But it’s nothing (compared) to the pain and suffering he went through.”
Douglass’ sister said the lawsuit led to an internal investigation and helped her understand that the incident led to changes at the VA.
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“I don't think we can ask for more than that,” Connie Olberg said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle confirmed the settlement but declined to comment.
The case received widespread media attention last spring as allegations surfaced describing VA employees misrepresenting long delays in care for its patients in Phoenix. That scandal led to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation in May and prompted Congress to pass legislation aimed at reducing a backlog in care for the nation’s largest hospital network.
“Clearly my brother was not alone, and his case is one of many that was the impetus for change. Change was not achieved by an individual, but by many people standing up and demanding resolution. I know that we did the right thing and I know my brother would have approved,” Olberg said.
The Center for Investigative Reporting published records in April showing that the VA paid $5.9 million in wrongful death claims related to cases involving VA Puget Sound between 2001 and 2011. The VA paid another $1.3 million in settlements for three Puget Sound wrongful death claims through early 2014, according to records obtained by The News Tribune.
VA Puget Sound has been straining to meet the needs of its rapidly expanding patient population. The number of people using the network — with large hospitals in Seattle and at American Lake in Lakewood — has nearly doubled since 2000.
Cliff Douglass grew up in Issaquah and served in the Army just after the Vietnam War. He returned to work in the Puget Sound after his military service and struggled with addiction at times in his life. In his last decade, he sobered up and became a mentor to others, his sister told The News Tribune in May.
He was diagnosed with melanoma in May 2011. He was especially vulnerable to the disease because he was taking medication for a liver transplant that increased his risk for cancer, his family was told.
A VA scheduler who was supposed to refer him to surgery at the University of Washington did not make the call and the cancer spread for three months until Douglass made his own appointment. His family’s lawsuit centered on the delay between his diagnosis and his first appointment at UW.
Douglass died in November 2012.