The Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs now estimates that more than 600 veterans erroneously received letters telling them they had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts said Thursday.
As a result of the panic the letters caused, the agency plans to create a more rigorous screening process for its notification letters and is offering to reimburse veterans for medical expenses incurred as a result of the letters.
"That's the least they can do," said former Air Force reservist Gale Reid in Montgomery, Ala. She racked up more than $3,000 in bills for medical tests last week to get a second opinion. Her civilian doctor concluded she did not have ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
ALS is a rapidly progressive disease that attacks the nerve cells responsible for controlling muscles and typically kills people within five years.
Since acknowledging the mistake, the VA has increased its estimate on the number of veterans who received the letters in error. Earlier this week, it refuted a Gulf War veterans group's estimate of 1,200, saying the agency had been contacted by fewer than 10 veterans who had been wrongly notified.
Roberts said the VA plans to call every veteran who received the letter by mistake to provide an explanation about how "this unfortunate and regrettable error" occurred and to offer reassurances that the letters do not confirm diagnoses of the fatal neurological disease.
Former Army Sgt. Brent Casey, whose mother read him the letter saying he had ALS as he was driving to get the oil changed in his car, said he has not yet received a call from the VA, but is eager to hear a detailed explanation of how the mistake occurred.
"I just couldn't believe it," said Casey, who grew up in Barboursville and now lives in Louisville.
The VA blamed a coding error, but said it was working to identify the specific problems behind the mistake.
The letters were intended to alert ALS sufferers of disability benefits available to them as well as surviving spouses and children. The VA estimates that about 1200 letters were correctly sent to people in those groups.
In the future, Roberts said notification letters will be subjected to a screening process that includes "thorough and careful screening of the data, comprehensive review and approval process that will include involvement from our stakeholders before release."
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Thursday to speak to veterans groups at the local VA hospital. A staffer who was with him at the event said he would not have time for an interview about the ALS letters, and none of the veterans there broughtup the subject during a question-and-answer session.