Man battles Phoenix VA while battling Stage IV cancer

A cloud of distrust has been hanging over the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Medical Center over the past couple years, after the secret wait list scandal broke, which revealed veterans were dying and subject to extreme delays in care.

To this day, many vets, and even employees, said not much has changed.

The problems at the VA, however, became a life-or-death battle for a local veteran battling Stage IV cancer.

The man ultimately found himself battling VA administrators, in order to undergo stem cell transplant surgery with his local doctor. Days before he was to begin the transplant process, the VA informed him the procedure was not approved, despite a letter that said otherwise.

"Earlier this year, in March, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Disease Lymphoma, with malignancies in my bone marrow," said Travis Angry, a veteran of the Iraq war.

Angry took advantage of the VA Choice program, and is a patient at the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert. His doctor believes stem cell transplant surgery could finally cure Angry of his recurring cancer. So, he went through the process of getting it approved by the VA.

"It is important to have the community of support around the patient during a transplant, because we know patients do better if they have that community of support around him," said Dr. Matthew Ulrickson with the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Angry was ecstatic when he received a notice of approval from the insurance company that works with the VA. The transplant surgery was scheduled to take place three days after the approval notice was written. However, the day before the surgery, a VA manager informed Angry that the procedure had not been approved after all.

"For the first time in 12 years, I was denied care for my cancer," said Angry. "I feel like my government has failed me as a veteran."

VA officials told Angry he was approved to have the stem cell transplant surgery done at the VA transplant center in Seattle, Washington, not at a valley hospital.

"I received the approval letter," said Angry. "The Phoenix VA Hospital needs to honor the approval. For them to rescind it now is an absolute disgrace."

"This was not formally approved," said Dr. Maureen McCarthy, Chief of Staff for the Phoenix VA Medical Center.

McCarthy doesn't normally get personally involved in the approval process, but this case was unique. All transplants are normally performed at a VA transplant center. Transplants performed at private hospitals must be doubly approved by the VA first, and that is a confusing process.

McCarthy said Angry's request was "preliminarily approved".

"The person that did the initial approval thought that the whole transplant approval process had been completed when it hadn't, and the fact that it wasn't was caught in the system of checks and balances," said McCarthy.

McCarthy, however, could not tell us who in the VA administration grants the initial approval, and who grants the final approval for transplants.

"When you're asking for very specifics and trying to pin down who made a mistake, I dont have that information because we are a system and we need to look in a non-punitive way what went wrong, so that we can improve our system," said McCarthy.

Although the VA was able to get Angry a stem cell transplant appointment at the Seattle transplant center right away, Angry refused, saying he couldn't coordinate care for his kids, on such short notice.

Angry, frustrated, fatigued, and fearful, reached out to local lawmakers and FOX 10, desperate for help. Two weeks later, the same woman who told him that his approval was actually denied reversed course, and informed him that he was now approved.

"We spoke with people in the central office, central office made a policy exception and allowed for this to go ahead and get funded," said McCarthy.

"Ms. McCarthy apologized to me for the lack of communication, the lack of understanding," said Angry.

On November 30, Angry completed the actual transplant surgery at the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, with the doctor and staff he knows and trusts.

Ulrickson is not surprised that Angry was able to become an exception to the rule.

"He doesn't shy away from things that are challenging," said Ulrickson. he is willing to speak up for things he believes in and fight for them

Ulrickson treats hundreds of vets through the VA Choice program, and said Angry is only one of two vets who have been successful at getting approval to have the transplant surgery done locally.

"That's pretty sad," said Angry. "That's the problem when I hear that. That breaks my heart. Veterans should be able to get the care they need within their community, to have their support system through their family and their friends."

Meanwhile, the VA is looking into what went wrong in Angry's case:

How did their system result in the patient being initially approved for the major surgery?

Where did the VA and insurance provider go wrong?

Was the system itself flawed, or was it plain human error?

"We don't pretend to be perfect. The whole system has opportunities to improve," said McCarthy. "I told him that we wanted to honor what he went through by trying to understand what went wrong here, so other veterans wouldn't have to experience what he did."

Angry, meanwhile, has completed the stem cell transplant at the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, and he is doing well. He is expected to be discharged from the hospital, in time for him to celebrate Christmas at home with his two children.