William H. Miller
Colonel, United States Army
By PAUL DE LA GARZA, March 6, 2004
ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - The Veterans Affairs inspector general is investigating the death of a decorated war veteran at Bay Pines (Florida) Veterans Administration Medical Center because of questions over the care he received.
At issue is how long it took a doctor to respond to pleas for help from retired Army Colonel William H. Miller, 79, of St. Petersburg, according to hospital staff and federal investigators in Washington.
Miller, who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, was admitted to the hospital last Friday after a fainting spell at home, said his son-in-law, Bill Reed.
He died Saturday night and will be buried Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery. Among the mourners will be one of his three sons, a two-star Army general in charge of operations in Iraq.
The investigation into the death of Miller comes at a sensitive time for Bay Pines. The hospital is the target of five federal inquiries into allegations of mismanagement and problems with a $472-million pilot computer system.
House Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, is holding the first of several congressional hearings on Bay Pines on Wednesday. In addition, the inspector general is dispatching additional staff to Bay Pines, spokesman Jon Wooditch said Friday.
In recent days, hospital director Smith Jenkins has been addressing issues that prompted the investigations. In an e-mail titled "BREAKING NEWS," Jenkins announced that starting Monday an Ohio-based group of VA psychologists will arrive at Bay Pines "to work with us to help reestablish a sense of cohesion."
"I want us to begin the healing process," he said, "in an environment of honesty and open discourse."
VA officials confirmed that the inspector general was investigating the Miller case - as well as other patient deaths that have been brought to the attention of investigators.
Investigators have been at Bay Pines for the past several weeks at the request of VA Secretary Anthony Principi.
According to hospital staff and federal officials, the inspector general is reviewing reports that on at least two occasions early Saturday, Miller told nurses that he was dying and that he needed to see a doctor.
A doctor checked on him nearly eight hours later, after 3 p.m. Miller died close to 7 p.m.
The Miller case has caught Principi's attention, said Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Nelson said he discussed the case with Principi on Thursday night and that the secretary promised to give him an update on the investigation within 24 hours. Nelson said that among other things, he and Principi talked about Major General Thomas G. Miller, the son based in Iraq.
Bay Pines spokesman Tom Thomas characterized the inspector general investigation as routine. But Wooditch, the IG spokesman, acknowledged that the inspector general took the case because "questions were raised."
In interviews earlier in the week, Miller's family said they did not know about the investigation.
Reed, Miller's son-in-law, said he had received a telephone call at his home in Maryland on Tuesday from Dr. Claudia Cote, a lung specialist at Bay Pines, asking for permission to conduct an autopsy on Miller.
Cote said she had been charged with signing Miller's death certificate, but that she did not feel comfortable doing it because she did not know the cause of death, Reed said.
"She said, "Look, the guy came in with a set of conditions, with the fainting, with some amount of dehydration. We went from that to death over the course of less than 48 hours.'
"She said, "Something had to have started to make this occur that we did not see.' "
Reed, who, along with his wife, Donna, had been with his father-in-law at Bay Pines, said he interpreted the telephone call from Cote as "favorable."
"I mean, she's being thorough," he said.
The family decided against an autopsy.
Citing privacy laws, Cote declined to discuss the case with the St. Petersburg Times.
Noting that Miller had a history of heart disease and other ailments, Reed said he did not blame his death on Bay Pines. He praised hospital staff, and compared Miller's calls for help last Saturday with "the boy who cried wolf."
For the past several months, Reed said Miller had become preoccupied with death.
"We knew he had a lot of problems," he said, "but he was melodramatic about this whole stuff."
Miller's son, William H. Miller Jr., of Atlanta, said he disagreed with Reed.
"My dad wasn't a bellyacher," said Miller, a former Marine who served a tour in Vietnam with his father. "My God! He was hard as nails. If one of us got hurt he'd say, "Suck it up, boy. No pain, no gain. No guts, no glory.' "
Noting his father had served 41 years in the military, Miller said, "If he went in there and said there was something wrong with him, you can bet your sweet butt there was something wrong with him."
Miller vowed to find out what happened to his father.
Since last weekend, Reed said he has agonized over Miller's preoccupation with death.
"Did we miss something?" he said. "Was he really trying to tell us at that stage that there was something wrong?"