Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive


Those who run the emergency room at Bay Pines VA Medical Center let a loyal federal employee die of a heart attack in an adjacent building without lifting a finger to help because he wasn't a military veteran. The decision was inhumane but reflected hospital policy. After an angry backlash, Bay Pines changed its policy, though not its reputation. Now if anyone needs life-saving emergency care while on Bay Pines property, the victim can be brought to the emergency room without regard to military status. Fall ill even an inch off VA property, however, and it's tough luck.

So continues the outrageous behavior by VA officials after the death of Mark Surette, a nonveteran who had worked at Bay Pines for 17 years. When Pinellas County paramedics fighting to keep Surette alive asked to bring him to the nearby VA emergency room, a doctor there said no. Instead, Surette was taken on a 10-minute ride to St. Petersburg General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Now, Bay Pines officials acknowledge that in a medical emergency "time is of the essence." Now, they "will strive to do what is best for the patient" in emergency situations, as long as the victim is "on the Bay Pines VA campus." Apparently Bay Pines officials think they should be thanked for adopting this new policy.

Sorry, but it appears Bay Pines still is violating state law and federal regulations. State law says that "a person may not be denied treatment (by a hospital) for any emergency medical condition that will deteriorate from a failure to provide such treatment."

Bay Pines can argue it operates under federal authority. Fine. The Veterans Administration handbook on the subject, titled "Intake Registration," says that if a person "requires emergency care and has been determined to be administratively ineligible for enrollment (in other words, a nonveteran), the applicant must be provided humanitarian emergency care" until the threatening condition is stabilized. Notice that even federal regulations say emergency care must be given.

If those standards don't sway Bay Pines, how about this one: simple human decency. Should paramedics, in their best judgment, be allowed to transport a patient to Bay Pines' emergency room if they think it would help save the victim's life - even if the person fell ill or was injured just off Bay Pines property? Of course. It's the right thing to do.

While a VA hospital's primary responsibility is to give military veterans medical treatment, it is funded by all taxpayers and has an obligation to the wider community. When someone is fighting for life, there is no time to research his Social Security number to determine if he is a veteran, which has been Bay Pines' policy.

Bay Pines let Mark Surette die within sight of its emergency room. Next time it could be an accident victim just outside the Bay Pines gate. Congress needs to intercede and force Bay Pines to live up to its humanitarian duty in medical emergencies.