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VA officials apologize to prostate cancer patients

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By Walter F. Roche Jr.
Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Veterans Administration's top expert on a prostate cancer treatment method told a congressional committee Wednesday that a program at the VA Medical Center in Philadelphia should have been stopped immediately when a computer malfunction occurred.

"There is no question it should have been shut down," Dr. Kent Wallner told the House Veterans Affairs Committee during a lengthy hearing.

Wallner, who works at the VA Medical Center in Seattle, was repeatedly lauded during the session by colleagues and committee members as the VA's top expert on brachytherapy, a prostate cancer treatment.

But Wallner also acknowledged that he was named in lawsuits in which veterans sued the VA for malpractice. Two of those lawsuits were settled in late 2007 for $1 million apiece, according to the attorney for the plaintiffs. The patients accused Wallner of implanting excessive doses of radioactive pellets that caused damage to adjacent organs.

"We happen to do a huge number of procedures," Wallner testified, adding that properly placing tiny radioactive pellets in the correct position was not easy.

"It's difficult to get it right," he said.

The hearing was called following revelations that insufficient doses of radioactive seeds were administered to 57 Philadelphia patients, while 35 received excessive doses.

The VA subsequently referred eight of the Philadelphia patients to Wallner, who implanted additional seeds in each of them.

Wallner and other witnesses testified that the Philadelphia program should have been halted when a piece of medical equipment that measures the dosage of the implanted seeds went out of commission in November 2006. Dr. Gary Kao, who headed the Philadelphia program, agreed.

"I should have broken the chain of command and shut down the program," Kao said.

The program was halted in June 2008 and has not resumed. The treatment is not available at VA facilities in Pittsburgh.

Other VA officials yesterday offered repeated apologies to the affected veterans and members of their families.

Michael Moreland, the Pittsburgh-based head of VA medical programs in Pennsylvania and four adjoining states, said reviews conducted following the discovery of the Philadelphia problems showed there was "a lack of adequate oversight. We've taken significant actions since then."

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