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Feds investigating five recent deaths at L.A. veterans hospital

The men who died were being cared for in residential rehab or emergency housing. Several may have OD'd.

April 04, 2007|Mary Engel | Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is looking into an unusual series of deaths -- five in three months -- among men in residential rehabilitation programs or emergency housing at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, officials said.

The deaths include that of Iraq war veteran Justin Bailey, 27, whose apparent prescription-medicine overdose Jan. 26 was the subject of a Times story last month.

"Obviously, these problems go beyond Walter Reed," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), at a hearing in Los Angeles on Monday with Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Harmon was referring to the national furor over the poor treatment and squalid conditions experienced by some outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Besides Bailey's case, the other deaths under investigation were of Vietnam-era veterans in their late 40s and 50s, said Dr. Dean Norman, chief of staff for the Greater Los Angeles VA system. The men died between November and February.

The four other veterans had substance-abuse problems as well as other medical issues, and at least three are believed to have died of illicit drug overdoses, Norman said. One death is believed to have resulted from medical causes unrelated to an overdose, he said.

In addition to the VA, the hospital itself and the Los Angeles County coroner's office are reviewing the deaths.

The day before he died, Bailey, who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a groin injury, had picked up five medications prescribed by the VA, including generic Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, and a two-week supply of the potent painkiller methadone, according to his medical records. He was allowed to administer the drugs himself even though he had a history of drug abuse -- a situation that has outraged his family.

"My son had made a decision to get help, and they didn't help him," Gulf War veteran Tony Bailey, 47, of Las Vegas told The Times. "They gave him the bullet."

Two other veterans died in the domiciliary, a residential treatment facility, where Bailey lived. Veteran Mark Torres, who was in his 50s, is believed to have died of a heroin overdose days after Bailey's death, Norman said. The other domiciliary death is believed to have resulted from medical causes.

About three-quarters of the 200 domiciliary residents have substance abuse problems. Twelve are veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The two other deaths occurred in an emergency housing program called the Haven, which is run by the Salvation Army. A shelter only, it has no treatment programs. Both deaths there are believed to have been from overdoses of illicit drugs.

Norman said the VA runs an outreach program that finds homeless veterans on skid row and in jails and takes them to the Haven and other emergency shelters.

"If we don't have that emergency housing, then they wind up in the streets," Norman said. "The idea once they go to emergency housing is to get them into recovery programs."

Los Angeles is believed to have the largest population of homeless veterans in the country.

The deaths come amid rising concern about the ability of military and VA hospitals to treat the influx of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, other mental illnesses and substance abuse problems. About one in five Iraq soldiers or Marines return with symptoms of PTSD, studies show, which increases the risk of substance abuse.

Since the deaths, hospital officials have enhanced security inside the residential facilities and on the surrounding campus and ordered an increased number of random urine tests, more staffing on weekend nights and room checks for drugs.

At Monday's hearing, Filner told Norman and Greater L.A. Veterans Affairs Director Chuck Dorman he had no doubt that VA employees cared about the veterans they served.

But, Filner said, "There's a defensiveness about problems that bureaucrats often have. And there's been no oversight" from the formerly Republican-led Congress, he said.

"We in the VA don't dump patients," said Dorman, referring to a recent uproar over local hospitals dumping homeless patients on skid row. "That's why you're seeing deaths on our campus."

About 3,000 Iraq war vets are being treated through the Greater L.A. VA system, Dorman told the hearing. About 50 are seriously injured.

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mary.engel@latimes.com

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