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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A Veterans Affairs hospital botched the treatment of a suicidal Marine by sending him to another medical facility even though he had an emergency condition, a federal judge said.
The Marine, Cameron Anestis, 21, of Georgetown, killed himself after he was turned away from a second facility in Lexington because he did not have a form showing he was a combat veteran. The VA had a duty to help Anestis, U.S. District Judge David Bunning ruled Wednesday.
"It must treat those who suffer from an emergency condition," Bunn said.
Anestis, a lance corporal in the Marine reserves, went to a Lexington VA medical center on Aug. 16, 2009, but was turned away after being told treatment wasn't available there. Anestis went to a second VA center in Lexington the next day and again was rejected.
Unable to find the form he needed, Anestis became frustrated and violent, attacking his wife, who called 911 from another room. While Tiffany Anestis was on the phone, she heard a gunshot and found that her husband had committed suicide.
Tiffany Anestis, sued the federal government in 2011, seeking $22.5 million in damages from the VA.
Bunning said there were several issues to be resolved before damages can be considered, including whether the VA's decision to turn away Anestis caused his suicide or whether there were other factors that led to it.
Attorneys for the VA argued that the law shields the agency from lawsuits because its policies allow limited discretion for employees to determine whether a patient was in an emergency state. Bunning rejected that argument.
"One can imagine emergency rooms barricaded from the general public with administrative gatekeepers announcing who can and cannot receive medical treatment," Bunning wrote. "And, because patients interact only with non-medical intake clerks, hospitals cleverly avoid all duties to treat imposed by state and federal law."
The VA has been at the center of a national uproar since this spring over reports of excessive wait times and manipulation of appointment records at facilities across the country.
Anestis family attorney Al Grasch said Anestis was an outgoing young man before serving in Iraq. He attended The Citadel military school in South Carolina before enlisting.
After he returned from Iraq, Anestis told his family he had killed many people, including some civilians, Grasch said. Anestis became withdrawn, extremely impatient and had temper outbursts.
The VA has a written policy saying no veteran should be turned away if they are deemed to be a danger to themselves or in need of immediate help.
"For whatever reason, they violated their own policy," Grasch said. "It's never explained why."
Bunning previously dismissed the lawsuit, but the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the case in April. The case of Anestis is unusual, with the U.S. 6th Circuit having handled only one similar lawsuit and other jurisdictions seeing a limited amount of litigation about VAs denying emergency care.
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