TAMPA — The James A. Haley VA Medical Center has apologized to four men quoted in a recent St. Petersburg Times article about difficulties they faced in a program that pays for medical care outside the facility, a hospital spokeswoman said.
This program, called fee basis, allows veterans to get medical care outside the Department of Veterans Affairs if the agency is too busy, doesn't offer a service or in case of some emergencies.
Veterans interviewed by the Times for the Oct. 16 story complained appointments with non-VA doctors have been canceled because of Haley's budget problems. Some noted instances in which Haley refused to pay for outside medical care.
"We have contacted those veterans who contacted you and apologized for any miscommunication that our veterans received," Haley spokeswoman Carolyn Clark said.
But interviews with most of the veterans or their families indicate the VA has not offered to remedy any of the problems they discussed in the story.
Clark, citing patient privacy issues, said she could not discuss the veterans' complaints.
Haley officials have steadfastly denied any cuts in its fee basis program. But hospital officials refuse to discuss two internal memos obtained by the Times showing Haley officials in July 2011 were restricting the program to emergencies.
The facility was taking measures to cut a budget deficit for fiscal 2011 that had climbed as high as $47.5 million.
Marine Corps veteran Charlie Kelley, 67, of Tarpon Springs, one of the veterans quoted in the Oct. 16 story, said a Haley employee informed him last week that the VA had further restricted fee basis treatment.
The new policy, he said, limited followup visits to outside doctors from a year to six months after surgery.
Haley officials have not responded to numerous requests to confirm that policy shift.
Clark said Haley director Kathleen Fogarty would grant an interview in several weeks.
Ken Seymour, another one of the veterans, said he hadn't been able to get Haley to operate on his abdominal cancer or pay a $158 bill he incurred when he sought a second opinion from a private doctor.
Seymour said a Haley surgeon told him the cancer was too advanced for surgery.
But Seymour, who otherwise praises his care at Haley, said he wondered if the denial was based on money, not medical necessity.
Earlier this week, Seymour underwent surgery to remove the tumor at a non-VA facility. His wife, Ava Seymour, said a surgeon had been able to remove it.
She said her husband called Haley one final time before his surgery to see if the VA would pay for the surgery.
"They said, 'No way,' " said Ava Seymour, who also noted the VA has not contacted her or her husband to offer an apology.
Since the initial story, other veterans have stepped forward to complain about Haley's fee basis program, including John Russo, 61, of New Port Richey.
Russo said his wife rushed him to the closest hospital in June 2010 when he started suffering intense chest pains and had difficulty breathing.
The closest hospital, however, was not a VA facility.
Billing records show Russo was admitted to a Pasco County hospital, where doctors installed a stent to open a blocked artery.
Russo said he had suffered a heart attack. The Times could not immediately obtain medical records confirming this.
"My doctor told me if my wife had driven me to Haley, I would have died," said Russo, noting such a drive takes 50 minutes.
On Sept. 16, 2010, Haley refused to pay medical bills because "the services rendered were not authorized by the Tampa VA," the agency said in a letter to Russo.
Haley, citing patient privacy, declined to discuss Russo's case.
Now Russo is on the hook for the unpaid bills, and he said bill collectors hound him.
On Aug. 31, 2011, Haley again refused to pay.
"The services rendered," a letter said, "were determined to be nonemergent by the fee basis chief medical officer."
"It wasn't an emergency?" Russo said. "Unbelievable."
Reach William R. Levesque at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.