SEMINOLE — A veteran in the throes of stage 4 melanoma says he has spent years fighting with the Department of Veterans Affairs for adequate care, and he now wants to make his struggles known.
Had his health condition been recognized early on by physicians when he first sought treatment while living in Maine, David Davis said Monday during a visit to U.S. Rep. David Jolly's District 13 office, he wouldn't be in the midst of a last-ditch attempt at survival, poised to embark on an experimental treatment regimen for a deadly condition.
The 15-year Army veteran, married and a father of five, said he hopes his decadelong struggle puts a human face on the bureaucratic issues that have for years plagued the VA health care system, troubles that recently have surfaced amid scandal and resulted in a shake-up of the department's top brass.
Davis has been living in St. Petersburg for six years and has sought care locally, as well as in Maine and Massachusetts. His military service began when he volunteered to serve in Vietnam in 1971. He said it wasn't only his predicament that brought him to Jolly's office, it's for all who served.
“I'm just one of many,” said Davis, 60.
He said the biggest problem for him was getting the department to sign off on care from private specialists outside the agency when he thought doctors missed his diagnosis.
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VA officials Monday could not reply to a request for information on Davis' case because of confidentiality laws regarding health patient medical records. However, spokesman Jason Dangel at Bay Pines Health Care System spoke in general about the VA's outside-care policy.
The VA does allow veterans in some circumstances to seek outside care, but not every situation qualifies, he said.
“In general, Veterans seeking health care at VA expense should be treated at VA facilities,” Dangel wrote in an email. “If VA cannot provide a specific service, for example, due to lack of available specialists, long wait times, or extraordinary distances from the Veteran's home, VA may consider authorizing payment for the Veteran to receive care in the community. Non-VA Care Coordination is not an entitlement program or a permanent treatment option.”
He added that cost is not a factor in the department's decision to cover non-VA care. Dangel wrote that non-VA expenditures in the 2012-13 fiscal year at Bay Pines increased 11 percent from the prior year to$78.6 million, and this year at least a 5 percent increase in outside VA care costs is expected.
Jolly said Monday he wants to see outside coverage expanded as part of what he hopes will be long-term reforms of the agency.
“Veterans are asking for more control over their health care decisions,” Jolly said. “It's a very simple concept that I believe could radically transform the VA.”
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Davis said his issues with the VA began in 2003, when he asked a doctor to check a sore he had. It was infected, the doctor told him.
But it wouldn't go away.
“It kept bothering me, and I asked for an outside referral,” he said.
“They refused to give me one, and so I paid for myself” to have a surgeon remove it.
The non-VA surgeon told him the sore was cancerous, he said. Five years later, skin problems returned, and the same story played out, he said.
In December 2013, a growth on his leg spurred more out-of-system doctor visits.
In February, he was diagnosed with cancer again by an in-system and an out-of-system doctor.
Now, he said, doctors have identified 14 cancerous tumors in his body, and he has been more or less told to get his affairs in order. But that's not his style.
“They tell me that they'll take care of me for the last facts of life, that means I'll get morphine, that means I'll get doctors, they'd get me whatever I want,” he said. “But I have to die in bed watching a 60-inch screen TV.”
At the insistence of his children, he asked Jolly to intervene on his behalf in June during an open house the congressman held to glean anecdotes on local veterans' care within the system.
Jolly became involved directly in Davis' case. Ultimately, he was able to get Davis connected to an experimental melanoma treatment program at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa called Tumor-Infiltrating Lymphocytes, or TIL, for which he is now being considered.
“Unfortunately, this took Mr. Davis coming to his member of Congress and us getting involved,” Jolly said. “Since we brought it to the attention to the VA they did find a way to work with us. This does reflect that the VA system can work.”
For Davis, the future is uncertain, but he takes solace in knowing his actions may benefit others down the road.
“They understand that if I do not make it through this research program, at least Congressman Jolly, the VA and I have made the first step in curing melanoma stage 4,” he said. “There is no cure.”