It doesn’t take long for Tamara Nelson to get emotional watching home video of the day her husband, Charles, received a life-saving kidney transplant this past June.
Their son, Coty, agreed to donate to save his father’s life. “Watching my son is what makes me cry the most,” said Nelson in July.
It’s a surgery that almost didn’t happen. Nelson is an Army veteran. He went through basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia and now lives outside Austin, Texas.
While in the service, Nelson got sick, which infected his kidneys. “He was so sick I didn’t think he was going to make it to transplant,” said Nelson.
This past June, Charles says the VA approved the transplant. So, he and his son prepared for surgery. Two days before the operation, they got unexpected news.
The VA told them it could not pay for the transplant because their son is not a veteran himself.
“That’s just idiotic. Now you’re making it harder on me, limiting the people I can use. It was just unbelievable is what it was,” said veteran.
Related: Part 1: Distance, Delays and Denial
The news got worse. When they offered to raise money to help pay for the operation to harvest their son’s kidney, the VA said it couldn’t accept it because the transplant was considered one surgery.
After contacting local media about the VA blocking the transplant, another hospital saw their story and offered to perform the transplant.
“The VA never did anything for us,” said Charles.
Jamie McBride is program manager for the VA transplant system in San Antonio, Texas. After five years working at the VA, he’s blowing the whistle about a broken system.
He claims the VA often denies transplants to veterans, when they could receive care from local transplant centers.
“When I sit across from someone who I know has survived being overseas, being in war, and they're having trouble surviving the VA transplant system, it breaks my heart,” said McBride.
This past June, U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Mark Kirk filed legislation that could force the VA to perform transplants involving donors who are not veterans.
“What we’re trying to do is solve this going forward for other veterans to make sure there is not a similar delay or confusion,” said Cornyn.
Read the proposed legislation, here.
The 11Alive Investigators uncovered, though, the proposal would only fix a part of the problem.
According to McBride, the VA will not pay to harvest organs from deceased donors if the operation happens at non-VA facilities. The legislation filed only covers living donors.
“We need more than living donations. The majority comes from deceased donors. Hearts, lungs, these are from deceased donors. We need that legislation to include all of those things,” McBride said.
Congressman Jeff Miller of Florida is the chairman of the House Committee on Veteran Affairs.
After the 11Alive Investigators started asking questions, Miller sent this letter to the Secretary of Veteran Affairs earlier this month – urging to “ensure that VA is using every available authority, as well as common sense, to provide life-saving [care].”
“Whatever it takes to help the veteran get better, and if it requires a transplant from a non-veteran, that’s where we need to go,” said Miller, after attending a veteran’s event in Omaha in August.
Read the letter, here.
Doctor William Gunnar is the VA’s director of surgery and in charge of the transplant program.
We requested an interview with him for nearly a month, but the VA said he was unavailable.
In an email, an agency spokesperson did not address Nelson’s case directly, but explained…”The VA has the authority to refer a Veteran for transplant care in the community..” But, then admits, “such outsourced care requires additional coordination of services while potentially negatively impacting [VA Transplant Centers]…efficiency.”
Read the VA’s full response here.
While Miller supports the proposed legislation, he thinks the VA should amend the rules without congress acting. He says he’ll be pressing for more answers on his committee.