Yesterday, Senator Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) convened a special field hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs in an effort to determine what went wrong with the Philadelphia VA Hospital's prostate cancer treatment unit late in June.
Last week, the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer broke stories about botched prostate cancer treatments at the Philadelphia VA resulting from misplaced radioactive "seeds" designed to slowly treat the disease through a procedure known as brachytherapy. The media painted a grim picture of the Philadelphia VA's "rogue cancer unit," which appeared to lack proper oversight for its prostate cancer treatment.
The stories focused on a retired Air Force veteran, Rev. Ricardo Fillipin, whose prostate cancer treatment resulted in severe radiation burns that needed immediate attention outside of the VA health care system. Adding insult to injury, Fillipin received a letter from the VA four years later acknowledging a “possible” mistake.
Yesterday's hearing presented a much different story about the Philadelphia VA and the doctor embroiled in the controversy, University of Pennsylvania Dr. Gary Kao, who was contracted by the Philadelphia VA to perform brachytheraphy. Reps. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) and John Adler (D-N.J.) joined Specter to preside over the hearing and ask pointed questions of each witness.
Of particular interest during the hearing were the assertions by the Philadelphia VA and Dr. Kao that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) actually had proper oversight of the facility, as did VA administrators. In fact, VA's acting undersecretary for health, Dr. Gerald Cross, noted that the Philadelphia VA's brachytherapy program had been reviewed by independent agencies on several occasions, and all indicators pointed to a program that exceeded national standards.
Dr. Kao also testified that misplaced seeds are common in brachytherapy and do not necessarily connote a "botched procedure" by the NRC. NRC representative Steve Reynolds refuted this statement, an assertion that the panelists seemed reluctant to accept based on further evidence provided by Dr. Kao. Representative Fattah went as far as to say that the issues raised by the Philadelphia VAMC's brachytherapy missteps may be indicative of a broader health problem within the private health care industry.
During a touching moment, Dr. Kao attempted to make amends with Fillipin for the suffering he endured as a result of botched treatments, telling Fillipin that he deserved better care and he deserved to know what happened.
VA has come under fire for several key oversight issues in the last few months as the result of numerous internal investigations. AMVETS leaders are keeping a close eye on all of these issues to ensure that VA delivers appropriate care to all affected veterans. Congress will once again address the VA brachytherapy issue in a hearing before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs after the Fourth of July recess. Check back with American Veteran Online as details of this story continue to unfold. To view a list of witnesses from yesterday’s hearing and to read their statements, Click Here.
(Photo: Dr. Gary Kao testifies before Sen. Arlen Specter, Rep. Chaka Fattah and Rep. John Adler at a special Congressional hearing on the Philadelphia VA's recent brachytherapy controversy. Photo by Ryan Gallucci.)