Macon veteran says he can’t get VA to treat cancer

wcrenshaw@macon.comJune 19, 2014 

A Macon man fears he could become a statistic in a national scandal.

In January, Army veteran Stewart Smith was diagnosed with throat cancer, but he hasn’t been able to get the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin to agree to treat it. Doctor’s have recommended chemotherapy and radiation after determining surgery was not an option.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is mired in a scandal in which veterans have allegedly died while awaiting treatment. In Arizona, VA officials allegedly kept a secret waiting list to hide the true scope of the problem.

Smith says he realizes he isn’t the only one.

“I’m furious with the veterans administration,” he said. “I am just one of thousands that are being ignored. I am angry. I’m frustrated.”

He made the comments Thursday at the office of his attorney, Virgil Adams, who called a news conference to bring attention to Smith’s plight.

Adams said he is exploring legal options to get the VA to take action, but that will take time. He would prefer for the VA to decide to treat him without further delay.

“The man has throat cancer,” Adams said. “He needs treatment. ... All the doctors agree he has cancer, but we are waiting for the red tape and bureaucracy of the VA to approve his treatment.”

Frank Jordan, spokesman for the Dublin VA hospital, said he cannot comment on specific cases. But he said the hospital called Smith on Thursday after getting media inquiries about the case to let him know they are aware of the issue and are trying to address his concerns.

“We are committed to providing veterans with the best care possible,” Jordan said.

George Phillips, an attorney in Adam’s law firm, also holds a medical degree and served 20 years as an Army doctor.

“It’s very offensive to any service member or veteran,” he said. “His cancer should have been staged and treated in January, when it was diagnosed. We are looking at a five-month delay for a cancer that is ... rapidly growing.”

Smith, 62, said his prognosis is good if he can get the treatment he needs.

Originally from New York, he has lived in Macon 17 years. He is self-employed as a carpenter and doesn’t have insurance of his own.

He served in the Army from 1971 to 1972 and was honorably discharged. He did not serve in Vietnam.

Smith had never had serious health problems, before but issues with his throat led him to the emergency room late last year, and he was eventually sent for further examination to the VA center in Dublin.

He was told in January that he likely had throat cancer and should have a biopsy from an ear, nose and throat specialist.

In wasn’t until March, however, that he got the referral from the VA that he needed to have the biopsy, Adams said. The doctor ordered a PET scan, which was done April 7, and confirmed Smith had cancer in his tongue and lymph nodes and needed surgery.

On May 7, Adams said, the VA told Smith it would not pay for any further treatment and did not cite a reason. Smith then turned to U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., whose district includes the Dublin VA hospital. Barrow contacted the hospital on Smith’s behalf.

The VA hospital then agreed to do the surgery, but the doctor preparing for it discovered the cancer had wrapped around Smith’s carotid artery, and therefore surgery could not be performed.

Smith was recommended for chemotherapy and radiation treatment. While the chemotherapy was approved, doctors at the VA hospital said they couldn’t treat him until the radiation treatment also is approved, Adams said.

That’s what led Smith to walk into Adams’ office Friday and ask for help.

Smith said he had two friends die of cancer at about the same time he was diagnosed, but he also said he knows many people who have survived cancer scares.

“I have a very positive attitude,” he said. “I just want to get it done. I want to get it started.”

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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