MIAMI – An Army veteran who served in Iraq found an even bigger battle back in the United States, trying to get the Veterans Health Administration to fund his cancer treatment.
"I wasn't scared in the Army. I wasn't scared in Iraq," Ryan Goggin said. "I wasn't scared. But when they told me I had leukemia, I was scared."
Goggin served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army. In March, 2010 he was 10 months into a deployment in Iraq when a roadside bomb hit his truck. A traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder ended his military career.
Goggin, 29, was healthy and active, until January. He suddenly became so weak paramedics rushed him to the Miami VA hospital. From there he went to the University of Miami Hospital for further testing. The diagnosis was acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, a type of blood cancer.
He began chemotherapy at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and said officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs initially told him they would work to cover his full treatment there.
"They didn't want me to continue my care at Sylvester," Goggin said. "They wanted to send me to Nashville."
In March, his doctor at Sylvester wrote a letter asking the VA to approve a stem cell transplant and testing of Goggin’s siblings as possible donors. Two weeks later, the doctor wrote again. The letter was marked "Urgent" and stated, "No financial clearance has been granted to our center. Further delays in decision will expose him to unnecessary, strong, maybe even life-threatening chemotherapies."
Goggin said it wasn’t until he began getting phone calls from a VA transplant center in Nashville that he understood he had officially been referred there for treatment instead. Local 10 News got written permission from Goggin to access his medical records with the VA. But a spokeswoman told Local 10 that most of the communication about Goggin's care was verbal and there was no paperwork to provide.
"Our primary goal in the treatment of any Veteran is ensuring they get the care they need," Miami VA spokeswoman Shane Suzuki said in a statement. "As part of a national network of VA healthcare facilities, specialized treatments such as bone marrow transplants and other highly specialized treatments or procedures are conducted at VA transplant centers, where costs of transportation, follow up care, housing and travel are borne by VA including those of a caregiver, allowing the patient to concentrate on healing and recovery. These services are offered to all veterans who meet the medical requirements of specialized procedures. However, we do respect our veterans' wishes if they choose a healthcare provider outside of VA and will continue to offer comprehensive health care services to all veterans who choose VA for their health care needs."
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, represents Florida's 1st District. He is also the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. In response to Goggin's case, Miller said:
"Apparently, according to VA's twisted logic, leukemia doesn't qualify as a medical emergency. This is exactly the type of cold-hearted, obstinately bureaucratic behavior that makes the average citizen lose faith in their government. That's why we have brought this issue to the attention of officials at VA headquarters in Washington with a request for them to clarify this policy and make the veteran whole as soon as possible. VA has multiple avenues to pay for this treatment at a location that’s convenient for the veteran. These programs, including Choice, were created for the express purpose of expanding medical care access for veterans in need. Attempts to use these programs as an excuse to deny veterans care are wrong and contrary to the spirit of the law."
"I’m just disappointed," Goggin's mother, Michelle Goggin, said. "I'm proud of my boy and I'm just sad that the country can't take care of our vets."
Goggin showed Local 10 News investigative reporter Amy Viteri a memo from his time in Iraq. The subject line read "Exposure to burn pits." It cited constant exposure at Goggin’s base to pits used to burn waste, including petroleum and medical waste, causing exposure to highly poisonous contaminants like benzene.
Goggin’s doctor wrote to the VA, saying, although there was no way to be certain, "Exposure to said chemicals has been associated with higher incidences of leukemia."
Goggin told Viteri he did not feel confident about being treated at the VA's Nashville transplant center, based on conversations he had had with staff there.
Concerned, he decided to pay for his own insurance, which was not accepted by Sylvester, and moved his family so that he could get the transplant at the University of Pennsylvania.
"As a veteran, I didn't have a choice in this care, and the VA didn't stand behind me," Goggin said.
He said the decision to move was a tough call that he should not have had to make.