Just a few months ago, a former nursing assistant at a Veteran’s Affairs facility in West Virginia pleaded guilty to seven counts of second-degree murder and one count of assault with intent to commit murder. She acknowledged her role in the killing of at least seven veterans by injecting them with lethal doses of insulin. Overall, officials are investigating 11 deaths at the facility for suspicious activity.
Now, several years after losing their loved ones, the families of these veterans are getting the justice they deserve. The U.S. Government has agreed to pay each family up to $975,000 for medical malpractice and negligence. But this money will never bring back the heroes that they’ve lost.
Nursing Assistant Pleads Guilty
In August 2019, the VA announced it was investigating 11 suspicious deaths at the Louis A. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center in West Virginia. The veterans in question seemed to have died between July 2017 and June 2018 after suffering from severe hypoglycemia, a condition in which the body doesn’t have enough blood sugar. This is what happens when providers give insulin to non-diabetic patients or too much insulin to diabetic patients.
Reta Mays, a former nursing assistant at the facility, pleaded guilty to wrongdoing, taking responsibility for at least seven of the alleged murders. She has since been in the custody of the U.S. Marines, and will remain in jail until sentencing.
Many of the veterans were not diabetic at the time and almost none required care in the ICU. As a nursing assistant, Mays was not authorized to give insulin to patients. The issue first came to light in June 2018 when a doctor on staff started investigating a slew of unexplained hypoglycemic episodes. May was quickly removed from her post during the investigation.
The VA Office of the Inspector General released a statement commenting on May’s recent guilty plea: “This case is particularly shocking because these deaths were at the hands of a nursing assistant who was entrusted with providing compassionate and supportive care to veterans. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims.”
Officials say they acted fast by getting Mays away from patients and taking the proper disciplinary action. “Within a matter of days of learning of the suspicious deaths at the facility, VA OIG agents identified the defendant as a person of interest. Working with medical facility leaders, the defendant was immediately removed from patient care. Without critical investigative actions being taken so expeditiously, additional lives could have been lost.”
Measuring the Worth of a Loved One
Losing a loved one when they are in the care of a professional is heartbreaking. Many family members were shocked to learn that their loved ones had passed away while under the care of the government agency that was supposed to protect them.
According to an attorney for one of the families, the settlements will range between $700,000 and $975,000, the most the state law will pay for medical malpractice cases. West Virginia has strict malpractice laws in the books, and it pays significantly less than other states.
However, this money will never replace what’s been lost.
Tony O’Dell, an attorney for five of the families that settled, commented on the payout, “Based on what we could get under West Virginia law, we did as well as we could have.” He believes the caps on malpractice claims show that the “lives of their loved ones are worth less (in West Virginia) than in states without caps.”
U.S. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin also played a big role in the settlement, according to O’Dell. He reportedly worked in the background to make sure attorneys had access to the medical data from the VA facility. He’s also asking the Inspector General of the VA to publish a more in-depth report of the murders, so we can prevent these kinds of incidents from happening in the future.
Right now, the facility has been accused of negligence, but it’s not clear how Mays was able to inject patients with insulin without anyone noticing. She appears to have administered the drug during the overnight shift when most people were asleep.
In a recent statement, Manchin said, “I hope Reta (Mays’) recent guilty plea and the settlements announced (Saturday) bring peace of mind to the victim’s families, but money and an admission of guilt can’t bring back their innocent loved ones.”
A court has yet to approve the settlements, but will likely do so this November.
Studies show the total amount of malpractice settlements paid by the VA has more than tripled in recent years, going from $98 million in 2011 to $338 million in 2015.
We hope these families find some peace and closure once the court settles their case, but the Veteran’s Administration needs to do more to prevent malpractice claims from happening in the first place.