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VA meets with Biliarkis over Coast Guard veteran's death

TARPON SPRINGS — The spokeswoman for the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa told Rep. Gus Bilirakis Saturday that privacy issues prevented full disclosure to him about a man's death at the facility.

This is the first time Haley told Bilirakis that he didn't get complete information about the June 30 death of Coast Guard veteran Richard Stecher, 64, of Tarpon Springs.

The Bilirakis visit by spokeswoman Carolyn Clark came the day the St. Petersburg Times reported gaps in the three-page letter Haley sent to Bilirakis on July 24.

Bilirakis isn't the only member of Congress the Department of Veterans Affairs decided wasn't owed complete disclosure on Stecher. The Times discovered on Saturday that the VA sent Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the exact same letter.

Both Nelson and Bilirakis had received a complaint about Stecher's care from his companion of 19 years, Mary Nicholl, and asked the VA for answers.

"We're open and we're transparent," Clark said in an interview.

But openness and transparency are sometimes the very thing the agency cannot provide — even to Congress — if privacy laws demands silence, Clark said.

"None of this makes any sense to me," said Nicholl, who thinks the VA is hiding its poor care of Stecher.

Now, Bilirakis is opening his own informal inquiry to decide who is right.

Nicholl met Bilirakis at his second annual Military Day event and provided a tearful account of Stecher's last several months.

Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, said he may meet with Haley officials next week for answers.

"I'm angry," Bilirakis said. "I'm very upset at the case, the fact that there could have been problems with this gentleman's care."

He said he would be disappointed if he discovered he was misled by the VA. "But I don't want them to break any laws, either," Bilirakis said.

In a meeting with Nicholl on July 23, Haley's chief of staff apologized and said three doctors "missed opportunities" to treat Stecher after he began getting sick early this year. A bowel obstruction went undiagnosed.

Haley also told Nicholl that the VA — which is short on radiologists — sent Nicholl to a private firm for a CAT scan in April. But a non-VA radiologist did not have previous scans for a critical comparison, documents show.

Stecher, Haley said, should have been admitted to the hospital after that CAT scan. Instead, he was admitted June 27 and died after emergency surgery.

Few of these details are provided in the letters to Nelson and Bilirakis. Instead, the letters go on at length about very specific complaints by Nicholl that are not always central to Stecher's death.

Why privacy issues prevented disclosure of many medical facts while simultaneously allowing release of other medical information is something Bilirakis said he will investigate.

"I can't wave a magic wand," he told Nicholl. "But I'll do what I can."

William R. Levesque can be reached at (813) 226-3436 or levesque@sptimes.com.

VA meets with Biliarkis over Coast Guard veteran's death 08/09/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 11, 2008 3:15pm]
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