A Copper River Valley widow won a bittersweet victory.
Kayane James said her husband, Bruce, died because of months of delay and errors by the Anchorage Veterans Administration clinic in diagnosing his skin cancer.
In the past couple weeks, there has been a major change in her case, which she hopes will help veterans and their families.
Bruce was diagnosed in 2011 with melanoma after decades serving as a Navy pilot. He was 59 years old when he died two years later.
James believes her husband would still be alive had there not been a months-long delay with his diagnosis and care at the VA clinic.
The “archaic” process of diagnosis and treatment began with a referral from Alaska to Washington, James said.
James said an Anchorage VA medical care provider told them a referral was necessary for a physician assistant to be sent from Seattle to Anchorage to take a picture of Bruce’s suspicious mole. That physician assistant would then have to fly back down to Seattle to confer with others before deciding the next step.
But that referral languished for three months “untouched” at an “abandoned desk,” James said she later learned.
CHANGE IN DIAGNOSIS, TREATMENT?
Another Alaska veteran, who learned he suffered melanoma a year after James' diagnosis, said he received a different level of care from the VA that is more streamlined.
“I think what (Bruce) went through changed the treatment I received,” said Gerry Glover, a veterans service officer with Veterans of Foreign Wars. “I have no doubt in my mind.”
Glover helps veterans and their families navigate the VA claims process. He helped the James family.
“I see quite a few other veterans who have gone through this process, both for melanoma or basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma,” Glover said. “They do the 'telederm' appointment now, and they get it done much more rapidly.”
Telederm appointments in Anchorage typically begin with a photo that is emailed to the Seattle VA.
Glover said Anchorage VA healthcare providers first noticed a suspicious mole on his back during late summer in 2012.
“They immediately called down to Seattle to set up a telederm appointment,” said Glover, who worked 26 years with military aircraft. “Within a week or so, they brought me back in, took pictures of the spot, emailed those back down to Seattle, and then they pulled me back into the office."
Within a month the spot was removed, Glover said, and now he is "all clear" of cancer.
“I don’t know what they did to change the process, but I'm certain that something was changed,” Glover said. “Although the system failed Bruce, the VA—both the benefits side here in Anchorage and the healthcare side—are incredible.”
SHOULD MELANOMA BE LINKED TO MILITARY SERVICE?
Glover also helped Kayane James appeal the VA’s denial that her husband’s melanoma was linked to his time as a Navy pilot.
Studies, including one from Iceland, show pilots are more likely to get melanoma.
Kayane’s pleas were repeatedly rejected over a period of three years, she said, but a couple weeks ago, she received a different type of news.
“Recently, it's been connected,” said Glover, who helped with the appeals process. “She's been paid back benefits.”
While each case is unique, Glover is hopeful other veterans with melanoma will be able to get future benefits due in part to Kayane’s perseverance.
“Hopefully, it means we're moving in a direction where (the VA) will recognize that melanoma is a very fast-moving cancer but it can take a long time to develop,” Glover said. “Hopefully veterans will be both service-connected, compensated and treated for that condition.”
Karl Pfanzelter, an assistant director of the Veterans Benefits Administration told Channel 2 News that the James case does not set a precedent for other veterans’ melanoma cases.
Unless Congress changes law to specifically connect melanoma to military flight service, each incident will be determined case-by-case, Pfanzelter said.
In May the VA denied Kayane’s request to get a government marker for her late husband because his remains had been cremated.
Kayane appealed that decision as well, and she recently learned she won that appeal.
There will soon be a headstone commemorating Bruce’s military service.