SEMINOLE — U.S. Army veteran David Davis was calm and clear-eyed on Monday, even as he sat in a congressman's office and told reporters about the cancer that will likely kill him.
Davis, 60, said he went to a Veterans Affairs hospital for treatment of skin growths and was told he had a cyst or an infection. They gave him antibiotics.
But Davis believed the problem was more serious.
He paid his own money to see an outside physician and learned he had skin cancer. The cancer is stage 4, and more than a dozen tumors are attacking his body.
But even as the father of five shared a story about what appears to be a missed diagnosis of fatal cancer, Davis and U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, said their purpose in speaking to reporters on Monday was not to pile on an already beleaguered agency.
They want to save other veterans.
Veterans shouldn't have to fight the VA to get outside opinions on their health, Davis said.
"If the veterans can seek the outside care, if they don't believe what the doctors give them, then they can live," he said. "Veterans don't just want to be treated. They want to be cured."
Davis' story comes amid widespread concerns over excessive waiting times for veterans around the country, including some who have died while waiting for their VA medical care.
Davis' case is "a perfect example of why we need to give veterans complete control over their health care," said Jolly, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Davis, whose children are ages 16 to 32, served in the U.S. Army from 1971 to 1986, with some short breaks between enlistments. He was a staff sergeant upon discharge. "I just love the military," he said.
In many ways, he said he loves the VA, too, and knows it's filled with good people trying to help. One is his wife, whom he said is a registered nurse for the agency. "I'm not mad at the VA, I think the VA is a wonderful organization."
Jolly also said the VA had been responsive to his concerns.
But Davis said his story shows veterans need better care. He and Jolly's office outlined the time line of his care:
In 2003, while living in Maine, Davis went to the VA because of a persistent sore and was told it was an infection. He asked the VA to send him to an outside doctor but was refused. He went to an outside doctor at his own expense and found it was skin cancer. The cancer was removed, he said.
By 2008 he was living in Pinellas County and discovered more skin issues, so he went back to the VA. He received more antibiotics, he said, but was again told he had an infection. His request to get an outside doctor's opinion was denied.
This year, Davis decided to seek more outside care at his own expense. He learned he had skin cancer again, he said, and presented the VA with that information.
A written summary from Jolly's office summarizes what happened next: "With Mr. Davis' wife present the VA doctor allegedly says they don't take outside opinions."
However, another VA doctor examined him and gave him a grim diagnosis: stage 4 melanoma.
Davis shared his story with Jolly in June, when the congressman invited local veterans to his office to talk about the quality of medical care they were receiving at the VA.
Jason Dangel, a spokesman for the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, said the VA does routinely authorize second opinions for medical diagnoses, but they are usually provided within the VA system. The VA will sometimes authorize second opinions from outside doctors, but usually only when they cannot be provided within the system.
Even though Davis spoke about his health in a congressman's office with news cameras clicking and whirring, Dangel said he could not provide specific information about Davis' care without properly filled out release forms. The Tampa Bay Times did present the VA with such a form signed by Davis, but Dangel said the form needed to be dated by Davis before it could be processed. He also asked for a copy of Davis' government identification.
With help from Jolly's office, Davis is now being considered for an experimental program at Moffitt Cancer Center, but both said it shouldn't have taken a congressman's intervention.
Better access to outside care could have made a difference in Davis' life, Jolly said. With that option, "We believe his diagnosis likely would have been very different."