15 Finds Out: Veterans fighting back against medical malpractice at VA

Local News

A class-action complaint has been filed on behalf of about a dozen veterans in Northeast Indiana who were victims of medical malpractice after recieving treatment at the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System. 

According to court documents, the patients recieved podiatric care from Dr. Bradley Hammersley between 2009 and 2016.

Hammersley started working in 2006 as a VA fee-based provider and a full time VA employee in September 2014, according to Tom Blackburn, a Public Affairs Officer at the VA Northern Indiana Healthcare System.

The complaint, which was filed Jan. 11, lists the names of 13 veterans who claim staff at the VA knew about Hammersley’s botched surgeries but covered it up.

Billy McGuire, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran, had surgery on his foot in 2012.

“[Dr. Hammersley] reported to me that a blown tendon needed to be removed and he was going to replace it with a new one,” said McGuire.

Six years later, in 2018, he was called into the VA office, where admistrators told him the surgery performed by Hammersley was not necessary and that therapy would have corrected the problem.

“My mind got awful scary,” he said. “I got emotional. The doctors showed me pictures of x-rays and MRIs of what my ankle looks like today and what it looked like back then. They stated to me that the ruptured tendon did not get replaced. Dr. Hammersley went in there and cut my ankle and made the tendon damaged himself. Then sewed it back together.”

His story echoes that of about a dozen other area veterans, including Robert Swisher. Swisher enlisted in the Army in 1984 and served his country for nearly 20 years. Hammersley operated on his foot in 2015.

“[Hammersley] did an MRI, x-rays and said I needed surgery like yesterday,” he said. “After surgery it was three times worse. I couldn’t walk across the yard. There was no stability on the outside and there was a sharp pain going through to the bottom of the arch.”

Swisher said the investigation into Hammersley began after a serious illness forced him to take a leave of absence from work.

“It kind of hit deep,” said Swisher. “Because when you get out of the service you expect to be taken care of to an extent.”

McGuire and Swisher are trying to seek damages for medical malpractice. Attorney David Farnbauch is representing them.

“A lot of the surgeries were unncessary and they were performed improperly,” said Farnbauch. “There were some very inapppropriate medical procedures that were done on some patients. We believe the VA knew that Dr. Hammersley was commiting malpractices on a widespread basis and they waited years to tell these patients.”

In 2018, letters from the VA went out to more than a 100 veterans, informing them that they were victims of medical malpractice. VA Administrators directed them to take legal action, however those patients learned their claims would be denied because they were outside of the two year statute of limitiations. 

“These patients kept going back to the VA,” said Farnbauch. “They kept going back to Dr. Hamersley or a PA in the VA system and even though they weren’t getting better after the surgery… no one was informing them that the reason they were getting worse is becasue they were the victim of malpractice. We are asking the judge to declare or issue an order that the federal governement cannot bar the claims of these verterans based on the statute of limitations.”

In a letter dated February 2018 Congressman Jim Banks asked Michael Missal, Inspector General at the Department of Veteran Affairs, to conduct a thorough review of all 415 cases involving Hammersley.  At that time the letter noted 44 veterans had been “identified as negatively impacted.” 

Banks released the following statement:

“From the moment I was notified about malpractice at the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System (NIHCS) podiatry clinics, I requested the VA Office of Inspector General to review “the circumstances surrounding allegations of improper surgeries within the Podiatry Clinic at VA NIHCS.” Indeed the findings in VA OIG’s report, released this month, are troubling and completely unacceptable.  Indiana veterans deserve the best care possible, with no exceptions.  While reforms and actions have been made within the VA to prevent a similar circumstance, much more is required. Vigilance and rigorous oversight must be at the core of the VA’s mission to serve our Nation’s veterans.”

15 Finds Out has learned that the Inspector General’s investigation revealed  that 115 veterans were negatively impacted. As of Dec. 2018, the VA reached out to all but 10 victims of the medical malpractice. Investigators recommended that the chief of surgery be suspended from his duties for not taking action in a timely manner, and the VA has also made changes to some policies and produceres to ensure this does not happen again.

Blackburn of the VA declined to be interviewed, however he released the following statement:

“VA always strives to provide Veterans with the very best health care possible. When we don’t meet that standard, we work quickly to identify problems, fix them and hold those responsible accountable.

In this case, VA Northern Indiana Health Care System completed an internal review in 2017 of all surgical podiatry cases performed by Dr. Hammersley after VANIHCS staff raised concerns. The review determined that a small percentage of Dr. Hammersley’s patients received substandard care.

VANIHCS leaders have contacted all affected Veterans to apologize personally, offer additional medical care and inform them of their options moving forward.”

McGuire and Swisher are faced with deciding if they want to move forward with corrective surgery offered to them by the VA. 

“Knowing that I’ll have to go through another operation… is that going to cripple me?” said McGuire.

“We want him to be able to walk and do those things that a normal person is age would do,” said McGuire’s wife Rachel. “But it’s a little different to approcach this situation now because it’s so different than it was six years ago.It’s kind of devestating you just you hear about these things happening all the time, but when it happens to you it’s very different.”

“It did a big dent for a lot of us,” said Swisher. “Looking back at the VA, do we really want to go back to it? Do we really trust it anymore? Money is not the biggest issue. It was how you got overlooked. The pain and suffering you had to go through to suck it up and drive on.”

Following the review of Hammersley’s surgical podiatry cases, VA terminated his employment in May 2017 and reported him to the Indiana Board of Podiatry.  

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