Terry Soles served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. His wife, Denise, says he was one casualty of this practice. In 1998, he went to the VA hospital in Cleveland complaining of pain and diarrhea, and doctors removed small cancerous growths from his stomach and esophagus.
But as his symptoms persisted over the next two years, his wife says the VA gave him painful tests and repeatedly lost the results. His wife says Soles was seen by a parade of constantly rotating resident doctors, and there was little consistency in his care.
Once, Soles was prepped for surgery but before the operation the doctors who were present couldn't agree on what they were going to do, she said.
Before he got sick, the 6-foot Soles weighed more than 200 pounds. By the time his family finally decided to take him to a private hospital, he weighed 80 pounds. Some VA doctors thought his problem was psychosomatic.
When he could no longer recognize his own son, Soles was rushed to a private hospital. There, Soles learned he was "a total mass of cancer from his trachea to his renal bowel. And that there was nothing that could be done," his wife says. Terry Soles died three days later.
The VA's Perlin said the Soles story was tragic, but added: "However, that is not the experience of most of the veterans who come to us for care. … We take care of 7 million veterans. While the majority of care is good, in a big system, bad things happen."
Critics charge that one of the big problems facing the VA is that too much money goes toward administration, at the cost of nursing and patient care.
Dean Billik, the former director of the VA in Charleston, S.C., is brought up as an example.
In 1996, he was denounced for allegedly spending about $200,000 in taxpayer money to redecorate his office; $1.5 million to renovate a nursing home unit that stayed empty for two years; and tens of thousands of dollars for a fish tank in the lobby — while there were budget shortfalls and staff cutbacks were contemplated.
Congress heard testimony claiming Billik was "blatant in his mismanagement," and an inspector general's report confirmed several of the numerous allegations against him.
But after everything was brought to light, Billik still got a bigger job: He was put in charge of the third-largest hospital system in the VA, encompassing eight cities, 295 acres of land and 83 buildings. And his salary immediately jumped about $15,000.
Primetime obtained budget information on the central Texas VA system for Billik's six-year tenure at the top. It confirms that Billik cut spending $2 million for the people in direct patient care — nurses aides and practical nurses.
Other documents obtained by Primetime show that $129 million was spent on construction at three of six facilities in Temple, Texas.
One source says Billik spent $1.8 million renovating a building at Temple for his own offices — after it had been renovated for patient care.
Furthermore, Nancy Kelsey, who was a nurse at one of the Temple facilities under Billik's supervision, says the way some of the staff treated patients was alarming. She says IVs ran out, patients were neglected and dressings weren't changed.
Melba Bell, whose husband, Ed, served in Korea, said the staff was often idle and it would often take hours to get help. Other families said that if patients or their families persisted in asking for help, some of the staff retaliated.