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Oklahoma Vietnam veteran with cancer asks why VA won't cover his care

Vietnam veteran Ken Jolley’s family has focused on fundraising for Jolley’s treatment after the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center denied paying for a non-VA clinical trial that Jolley argues is his only shot left at survival.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Modified: June 22, 2014 at 2:00 pm •  Published: June 22, 2014

Emerson Fischer wanted to help her grandfather pay for cancer treatment.

“Mama, how much does Papa Ken’s medicine cost?” the 6-year-old girl asked her mother.

“It costs lots of money, Baby,” her mother said.

“Well, if I save my allowance for two months, I will give it to him, and then he will have enough money to get better.”

By the end of the two months, Emerson’s hot pink piggy bank will have about $40.

If Emerson’s grandfather, Ken Jolley, had it his way, neither Emerson nor the rest of his family would be helping him pay for his cancer treatment. Instead, the VA medical system would.

Vietnam veteran Ken Jolley’s family has focused on fundraising for Jolley’s treatment after the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center denied paying for a non-VA clinical trial that Jolley argues is his only shot left at survival.

“The prognosis is — without treatment at this point, they're saying 24 months or less,” Jolley, of Allen, said. “ ... With treatment, I stand a very good chance.”

For the past several months, Jolley, 64, has debated with leaders at the OKC VA Medical Center about whether the VA should pay for Jolley to participate in a non-VA clinical trial.

The VA has offered him other forms of treatment, but none have been shown to be effective in stopping the rare form of cancer he has, Jolley said.

Dr. Mark Huycke, the chief of staff at the hospital, said in a statement that OKC VA is committed to providing the highest quality care to veterans.

“Patients are screened for clinical trials, and those who meet eligibility criteria have the option to participate in a clinical trial,” Huycke said.

“Veteran Health Administration follows nationally accepted clinical guidelines to ensure standards-of-care treatment is delivered and always considers federal regulations when providing care. Local decisions on requests for non-VA care can be appealed through the facility and, if needed, to network headquarters for further consideration.”

In 2013, six patients at the OKC VA Medical Center were enrolled in non-VA clinical trials. Meanwhile, there were 138 active clinical trials open in 2013 at the OKC VA medical system, and 1,237 Veterans were enrolled in those trials.

Nationally, the VA medical system has faced fierce scrutiny, with attention over the past few months focused on the delays that veterans face when seeking care.

Jolley has seen those delays in his cancer treatment.

In August 2010, Jolley noticed a small mole on his back that had grown darker in color. He soon had a biopsy performed, which tested positive for skin cancer. Tests a few months later showed Jolley had lesions on his liver, lung and inside his chest.

Over the next year, Jolley would wait months at a time for testing and screening. Nine months after Jolley had his first appointment, a doctor at a Texas VA hospital would tell Jolley he was in stage four of his cancer diagnosis.

“You may not want to do anything at this stage,” the doctor said. “Just go home and get your affairs in order.”

Shortly thereafter, Jolley would learn he had neuroendocrine carcinoid cancer, a rare form of slow-growing tumors mostly found in the gastrointestinal system, although they can grow in other parts of the body, according to the Carcinoid Cancer Foundation.

In May 2012, Jolley moved his treatment from Texas to the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center. Doctors there told him that, with carcinoid cancer, a “wait and watch” approach is an acceptable form of treatment.

Jolley disagreed and sought a second opinion at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville where a doctor recommended he receive peptide receptor radionuclide therapy in Europe, a therapy that isn’t approved in the U.S.

It’s a similar advice that Dr. Thor Halfdanarson recommends to his patients, although it comes at a cost.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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