Veteran advocate who petitioned Congress dies from long wait times and neglected care

Barry and Donna Coates. Courtesy photo

Just two days after her husband’s death, Donna Catoe Coates spoke with us at Popular Military about the battle U.S. Army veteran, Barry Lynn Coates, 46, known to his friends as ‘Lynn’, fought for the last 5-years.

As an outspoken advocate who took his story to Capitol Hill and screamed it as loud as he could; she said, “His battle with cancer was nothing compared to his battle with the administration for getting the tests and diagnosis he needed to get treated, “Coates said. “He really suffered and it breaks my heart”.

Lynn’s battle was no secret. When he stood before the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs in April 2014, he was already terminally ill. Multiple visits to Rock Hill Veteran’s Community Clinic in Rock Hill, South Carolina between December 2011 and his diagnosis in 2013, and the doctor continued to insist that “he just had hemorrhoids and needed to give it time to heal”, and “you’re going to have to give the stool softeners time to work. These things take time.” Donna Coates cried.

Lynn’s testimony before Congressman Jeff Miller (R-FL), Chairman of the Veteran’s House Committee explained in detail how he had complained to VA doctors for over a year about his excruciating pain and rectal bleeding. When he spoke, he said, “It is likely too, late for me, the gross negligence of my ongoing problems and crippling back log epidemic of the VA medical system has not only handed me a death sentence but ruined the quality of my life I have for the meantime. I am not here today for me, I am here to speak for those to come so that they might be spared the pain I have already endured and know that I have yet to face,” he said.

Miller insisted on an exploration of the allegations and demanded accountability and an investigation into the administration at both the Rock Hill Veteran’s Community Clinic and the Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina. The probe exposed bogus waiting lists, inconsistencies, and misconduct in many areas of the management, expanding to multiple VA hospitals. According to the Washington Times, Miller accused the Department of Veterans Affairs of a “rampant lack of accountability and secrecy”, as the embattled agency faces more scrutiny by lawmakers over shoddy services for veterans and long-term mistreatment of employees.

The same lack of accountability and professionalism, according to Donna, that led her husband to have to beg and fight for needed tests and medical attention. Lynn struggled with growing discomfort and desperation for answers. After his testimony to the House Committee, his story received national attention and was featured in a CNN investigation about the growing issue of delayed care in veterans’ deaths.

The investigation into Dorn VAMC showed that at least nineteen other Veterans had died due to delays in care, and as many as sixty or so more were dying, or would die, due to the very same negligence. The same investigation has been looking into other VA medical centers throughout the U.S. According to the CNN report, the numbers could be significantly higher, as this was just the South Carolina/Georgia region they were looking into.

Donna said, “It’s really starting to hit home now that this is happening to a lot of people. I actually have met people because of this, who have gone through a similar experience”. Only a month ago, Popular Military reported on the mistreatment of Kenny Porter at the Dorn VAMC. “That report inspired me to share what happened to my husband. At this point it can’t do anything for him, but I hope it can do something for another wife who is going through this,” she said.

What happened at Dorn VAMC however, was not just an oversight by the hospital. Government documents obtained exclusively by CNN and not made public, showed that the hospital knew that the growing waiting list and delays in care were having deadly consequences. The report suggested that at least 7,000 other veterans were waiting for routine health and diagnostic tests. Medical investigators had reviewed the cases of 280 gastrointestinal cancer patients at Dorn and found that 52 of the cases were listed as being “associated with a delay in diagnosis and treatment.”

Lynn didn’t let the doctors persuade him into waiting the full year for his tests. He was proactive and called the clinic every day hoping there would be a cancellation in the schedule, so he could be seen. “We got lucky. That’s all I can say. The clinic told us they do not notify people of openings in the schedule when Lynn asked, but the very next day a woman called to let us know that we could come in, and we got the appointment that next day”.

Within minutes of completing his colonoscopy, Lynn was sent from the clinic to Dorn VAMC to schedule an emergency CT-scan, according to his wife. “They did the CT-scan the next day. I was at work so my son Shane went with Lynn. I got a phone call from my son that Lynn had cancer. After his biopsy, he was diagnosed with a baseball-sized tumor in his colon. The CT-scan also showed that the cancer had spread to his liver and lungs. He had stage-4 cancer at the time of his diagnosis. What can I say? We were devastated. But, at least now we had a diagnosis and Lynn could get treated”.

Since July 2011, hundreds of other reports and complaints have been made regarding Dorn VAMC and thousands of other similar complaints have been made country wide.

Miller said, the VA had declined to answer or address the allegations of the serious delays in care and when they did, they assured him the backlog issues was resolved. He said, “no one was going to be held accountable and not a single person was fired or demoted”. In fact, according to the report, several people may even have been paid bonuses in spite of the problem. His inquiries, as well as CNN’s were ignored.

“Unfortunately, if they treat members of Congress…this way, imagine how they treat the average veteran out there,” said Miller. “I can imagine the grief they may be going through.”

The VA eventually responded in a statement to CNN. “The Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to providing the best quality, safe and effective health care our Veterans have earned and deserve. We take seriously any issue that occurs at one of the more than 1,700 health care facilities across the country. The consult delay at Dorn VAMC has been resolved.”

The statement assured that additional staff had been hired and cases were receiving daily attention through tracking and reviews. According to CNN, anonymous sources at Dorn, both medical staff and patients insist that this is not their experience and they do not believe it is the truth. Retaliation for reporting the inconsistencies and violations has brought the Dorn VAMC administration under scrutiny and forced lawmakers to look into possible whistleblower violations as well.

“The VA started looking into the facility after a detailed, confidential complaint filed by an employee. But when the Inspector General’s office contacted the employee whose name was on the complaint, the individual denied submitting the complaint. The employee surmised a former coworker initiated the complaint under the employee’s name. The report notes that it was difficult to investigate some of the complaints without more details from the informant”, according to a report by The State.

Donna shared through her tears, “my Lynn is not here to fight anymore but I pray that something gets done because of what he went through. He brought a lot of awareness and now we just hope that other lives will be saved because of what he did”.

Barry Lynn Coates was courageous in his fight against cancer and in his fight for other veterans to receive the care they deserve.

“I’m not doing it for myself,” said Lynn in an interview with The State in April 2014. “I want to be the voice for all the vets who have suffered through this, and for the ones who died and their loved ones.”

Lynn is survived by his wife, their 5-children, 5-grand-children, and a community that loved his bubbly personality, passion for pawn shops and information, and for fixing things. He loved the beach, nature, his family above everything, and he lived for the service of his country.

The funeral will be held at 2:00 p.m., Wednesday, January 27th, 2016, in the sanctuary of Timrod Baptist Church, Bethune, S.C.

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  • Penny M. Polokoff-Kreps earned her BA in Sociology from Queens College of the City University of New York. She is a published author, speaker, FL Supreme Court mediator, and a Guardian ad Litem. She runs a non-profit with her husband, a Vietnam veteran, providing nutritional supplements for veteran cancer survivors, and supporting veterans in obtaining service dogs. She is passionate about veteran's issues especially those related to PTSD and mental health.

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