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VA Pathologist Indicted for Patient Deaths Due to Misdiagnoses

Former VA pathologist Robert Morris Levy was charged on August 20, 2019, in the deaths of 3 veterans and a number of other crimes due to misdiagnoses and false second opinions.


 

Levy was chief pathologist at Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, Arkansas. During his 12-year tenure at the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), he read almost 34,000 pathology slides. However, at the same time, he was working under the influence of alcohol and 2-methyl-2-butanol (2M2B)—a substance that intoxicates but cannot be detected in routine tests.

The VA fired Levy last year, and the VA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) began an investigation of his actions and of agency lapses in overseeing him. The 18-month review found that 8.9% of Levy’s diagnoses involved clinical errors—the normal misdiagnosis rate for pathologists is 0.7%. Hundreds of Levy’s misdiagnoses were not serious, but ≥ 15 may have led to deaths and harmful illness in 15 other patients. Some patients were not diagnosed when they should have been. Some were told they were sick when they were not and suffered unnecessary invasive treatment.

Levy knowingly falsified diagnoses for 3 veterans. One patient was diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma—a type of cancer he did not have. He received the wrong treatment and died. Levy diagnosed another patient, also wrongly, with small cell carcinoma; that patient died of squamous cell carcinoma that spread. The third patient was given a benign test result for prostate cancer. Untreated, he died after the cancer spread.

One patient was given antibiotics instead of treatment for what was later diagnosed as late-stage neck and throat cancer. In an interview with the Washington Post he said, “I went from ‘Your earache isn’t anything’ to stage 4.”

How was Levy able to wreak such havoc? One reason was that despite concerns and complaints from colleagues, he looked good on paper. He falsified records to indicate that his deputy concurred with his diagnoses in mandated peer reviews. He also appeared “clean” in inspections through using 2M2B.

Levy was fired not for his work performance but for being arrested for driving while intoxicated. He had been a “star hire” with an medical degree from the University of Chicago, who had completed a pathology residency at the University of California at San Francisco and a fellowship at Duke University focusing on disease of the blood. But he also had a 1996 arrest for a driving under the influence (DUI) on his record when he joined the VA in 2005. In 2015, a fact-finding panel interviewed Levy about reports that he was under the influence while on duty. He denied the allegations. In 2016, Levy arrived at the radiology department to assist with a biopsy with a blood alcohol level of nearly 0.4. He was suspended, his alcohol impairment was reported to the state medical boards, and his medical privileges were revoked. He entered a VA treatment program in 2016, then returned to work. Levy, who also sat on oversight boards and medical committees, seemed drowsy and was speaking “nonsense” at an October 2017 meeting of the hospital’s tumor board, according to meeting minutes provided to The Post .

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