A lawyer for a military veteran opened a medical-negligence trial Monday by saying his client's now-terminal prostate cancer would have been curable had the Veterans Administration hospital in Phoenix diagnosed it sooner.
Attorneys defending the Veterans Administration countered that a nurse practitioner involved in the case of Steven Harold Cooper complied with the applicable standard of care and the then-40-year-old Cooper was not considered to be at risk from prostate cancer at the time of his first appointment.
"There was no reason to send him to a urologist," said attorney Elizabeth Sichi, noting that Cooper didn't have risk factors such as a family history of the disease.
The lawsuit is being heard on the heels of a scandal at Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix in which whistleblowers revealed that veterans on secret waiting lists faced scheduling delays of up to a year.
However, no direct references to wait-times were made during opening statements at Cooper's trial.
Gregory Patton, one of Cooper's attorneys, said the nurse practitioner found abnormalities in Cooper's prostate during a December 2011 examination but failed to order more testing and refer him to a urologist.
Instead, Cooper learned 11 months later from a VA doctor that he had stage-IV prostate cancer. Life expectancy for Cooper, now 46, is believed to be five years, his lawyer said.
Patton made one passing reference to a weeks-long wait that his client was told he would face for an appointment after he was given his cancer diagnosis. Cooper instead went to a private doctor the next day for treatment.
Cooper, who served nearly 18 years in the Army before his honorable discharge in 2007, is seeking unspecified damages.
Patton told the magistrate judge who's deciding the case that the nearly one-year delay in diagnosis allowed the cancer to spread and that his client didn't get the best care available.
"He received the very worst, and it will cost him his life," Patton said.
Lawyers defending the VA say the nurse practitioner didn't turn up any indications of cancer during the initial examination and noted that Cooper didn't complain of urinary symptoms during the appointment.
The attorneys for the government also say it's impossible to say whether Cooper's cancer would have been confined to his prostate around the time of his initial appointment in 2011.
The separate investigation of the hospital by the VA's office of inspector general found that as many as 40 veterans died while awaiting care.
The scandal led to the ouster of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and a new law overhauling the agency and granting veterans easier access to treatment outside the VA.