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Attorney blasts VA's hiring of ex-Mass. surgeon

A lawyer for a Kentucky woman whose husband died after gallbladder surgery at a VA hospital in southern Illinois says the VA's hiring of the surgeon with a questionable record in Massachusetts is "the most egregious" concern in the case.

Bob Shank, 50, bled to death a day after his Aug. 9 laparoscopic surgery by Dr. Jose Veizaga- Mendez at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Marion, according to his widow's lawyer, Jim Harmon.

The doctor resigned three days later, shortly before the hospital suspended inpatient surgeries due to a reported spike in post-surgical deaths from October 2006 to March 2007. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said Veizaga-Mendez had some role in nine deaths when the typical mortality rate would have been two.

Veizaga-Mendez, while simultaneously licensed in Illinois, surrendered his Massachusetts medical license last year after accusations of grossly substandard care.

Insistent that Bob Shank died after undergoing what should have been one of the "most mundane procedures you can think of," Harmon said "the most egregious thing was that [Veizaga-Mendez] was on staff" in Marion.

"I can't imagine how even the most rudimentary check of the last hospitals he was on staff at [in Massachusetts] would not have revealed gigantic problems with this guy," Harmon said.

Repeated efforts by the Associated Press to find a listed telephone number or address for Veizaga-Mendez have failed.

Shank's widow, Katrina, has filed a claim against the US government as a precursor to a possible federal lawsuit and plans an aggressive legal push to flush out why Veizaga-Mendez got hired in Marion despite his documented troubles, Harmon said.

Pete McBrady, the acting director of the VA hospital, said yesterday that a group of physicians at the Marion site typically pores over a "wide range of information" in vetting each job candidate.

The scrutiny includes finding whether the applicant is licensed in other states and if he or she has a record in the National Practitioner Data Bank of tort or malpractice claims against physicians. They also go over personal clinical references.

"All of those pieces of information would have been included in the discussion about whether to hire," said McBrady, adding that he wasn't involved in Veizaga- Mendez's hiring and has not spoken with the panel that was.

Background checks did not reveal any prior or pending disciplinary action against Veizaga-Mendez, and documents concerning his relinquishing his Massachusetts license in June 2006 indicated the action was "for non-disciplinary reasons," McBrady said.

By surrendering his Massachusetts license, Veizaga-Mendez legitimately could tell prospective employers elsewhere that his license never was suspended or revoked, Harmon said. "That's kind of a flaw in the system," he said.

An administrative law judge on Dec. 10 is to consider the status of Veizaga-Mendez's Illinois medical license.

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