CHANDLER, AZ - A Chandler veteran who successfully sued the VA Health System now plans to sue them again.
Army Sergeant First Class Steve Cooper won just over $2.5 million in March 2017, arguing that his prostate cancer was stage four and terminal because the VA failed to diagnose him in a timely manner. A federal judge agreed.
That money was meant for pain and suffering and lost wages, Cooper says, and so now, he's suing because he says the VA needs to pay his medical bills and stop blocking veterans from seeking the care of physicians in the private sector by either requiring them to return to the VA for treatment or not paying their physicians.
"That's the situation they're putting us veterans in," explains Cooper. "We have to go to doctors and barter and say we need the surgery, but can't promise it will get paid for."
Cooper is seeking $50 million and will file a notice of claim in court on Thursday. Cooper says it's not about the money — it's about fighting for his rights and the rights of other veterans.
"I've got to speak louder and I've got to push harder. They have to do better and we have to hold people accountable," he explained.
ABC15 reached out to the Phoenix VA Wednesday night for comment but did not hear back.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michelle Burns ruled a nurse practitioner who found abnormalities in Cooper's prostate during an examination in late 2011 at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center had breached the standard of care by failing to order more testing and refer him to a urologist.
Instead, Cooper learned 11 months later from a VA doctor in Gilbert that he had stage-IV prostate cancer. The day after receiving the diagnosis, Cooper sought treatment from a private doctor.
"He basically sent me home to die," Cooper said in an interview Monday night. “I felt absolutely betrayed by my country that I served for 18 years when all I was seeking was basic healthcare.”
"There's no question Mr. Cooper has suffered," Burns said, noting earlier that the nurse practitioner should have recognized the asymmetric quality of Cooper's prostate was a possible sign of cancer.
Phoenix was the epicenter of a scandal in which whistleblowers revealed that veterans on secret waiting lists faced scheduling delays of up to a year. An investigation by the VA's office of inspector general into the wait-time scandal concluded 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.
But there were no direct references to the wait-time scandal made in Burns' decision and during arguments by Cooper's attorneys at a week-long trial.
Cooper held his wife's hand and nodded in agreement as Burns read her decision aloud in a packed courtroom. Many spectators clapped when the judge finished reading the decision.
"We didn't need a penny," Cooper said outside of court. "We needed a verdict that showed that the quality of care is substandard at the Phoenix VA."
Burns said Cooper, who served nearly 18 years in the Army before his honorable discharge in 2007, had undergone mental and physical pain as a result of surgeries and therapies related to his medical condition. She also said Cooper can no longer work and has lost dignity and some of his enjoyment in life.
Lawyers defending the VA had said 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 said it was impossible to say whether Cooper's cancer would have been confined to his prostate around the time of his initial appointment in 2011.
The U.S. Attorney's Office, which defended the VA in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the verdict.
In a statement, the VA said, "The VA will study the court's decision in this case and make any appropriate decisions regarding policy and procedure to ensure excellent healthcare."