Macon widow sues VA for delays in husband’s cancer care

Howard McKinley served three years in the U.S. Army before leaving with an honorable discharge in 1967.

McKinley married in 1968 and pursued careers in a number of fields. He built Camaros for General Motors, worked as a fire restoration specialist and drove trucks. Before retiring, he worked in the check cashing business.

He depended on the Department of Veterans Affairs for his medical care when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2010 while living in Tennessee.

After a series of delayed treatments and surgeries, McKinley died Sept. 21, 2013, at age 66, about a year after he and his family moved to Macon.

A wrongful death claim filed by McKinley’s wife, Mary Jo, alleges the VA falsified medical appointments and wait times, “resulting in inexcusable delay in care and treatment,” according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia this month.

The lawsuit also alleges VA doctors were negligent and failed to “timely diagnose and treat” McKinley’s cancer, “timely schedule surgery and treatment,” and meet “appropriate and applicable medical standards of care.”

The case is, if not the first, one of the first in Middle Georgia to seek damages against the federal government amid national concerns about veterans’ access to medical care.

Macon attorney Virgil Adams, one of the lawyers representing Mary Jo McKinley, said it’s “a huge tragedy” when someone dies after a missed diagnosis or undue delays take away the opportunity for someone to receive “early diagnosis and appropriate treatment.”

“There was no opportunity for Mr. McKinley to beat the ‘Big C,’ ’’ he said. “He did everything he was supposed to do.”

Caroline Herrington, another of Mary Jo McKinley’s lawyers, said it’s also tragic that Howard McKinley received assurances from the VA at a point during his treatment that “he was healthy” and no longer had cancer.

“Obviously those turned out to be incorrect,” Herrington said.

U.S. Attorney Michael Moore said last week he couldn’t comment because his office hadn’t been served with a copy of the lawsuit. The United States is listed as the sole defendant in the case.

The VA denied Mary Jo McKinley’s claims in an April 10, 2014, letter, saying reviews of her husband’s care “did not find any negligent or wrongful act or omission” by a VA employee. The letter was filed into the court record along with the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit:

Howard McKinley went to a hospital emergency room in July 2010 after spotting blood in his urine. Tests led doctors to suspect he might have cancer. The diagnosis was later confirmed.

In the following three years, McKinley experienced scheduling delays for surgeries and other treatments.

After having two tumors removed in separate procedures, doctors found another bladder mass in January 2012 but allegedly “did nothing to treat the bladder cancer that was clearly present and growing in Mr. McKinley’s body.”

In March 2012, a doctor assured McKinley’s wife that he no longer had cancer.

When McKinley complained of having symptoms in May 17, 2012, he was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection.

The McKinleys moved to Georgia later in 2012, and he was admitted to the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin for anemia in September.

A third tumor was removed in October 2012, and he began chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Soon, he suffered a seizure, and doctors determined the cancer had spread to his brain.

He died Sept. 21, 2013.

In addition to his wife, McKinley left behind an adult child. The McKinleys also had been raising their daughter’s two sons since her death from complications after being struck by a car, Herrington said.

Adams said cases like McKinley’s ask, “If this is the best we can do for the men and women who defend us ... what does that really say about what we think of the commitment and sacrifice they give to this country?”

To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.