SAN DIEGO (NEWS 8) - An Alpine veteran is in a life-or-death battle to get a lung transplant. But the Veterans Administration says he’s too old.
Two or three times a week, 73-year-old Bill Root walks his dogs on his property in the hills near Alpine.
“I walk a little over two miles. I do get winded but the oxygen helps. I have to maintain a certain oxygen level,” Root said.
The Vietnam veteran has to carry an oxygen tank on his back during his walks because he is dying from pulmonary lung fibrosis.
“You’re not able to access air, so eventually you just suffocate and that's it,” said Root.
He used to smoke cigarettes when he served as a tank commander in Vietnam but doctors can't say for sure exactly what damaged his lungs.
“I quit high school at age 17 to join the Marine Corps and I didn't do it in anticipation of some sort of benefit when I was 73,” said Root. “I knew it was something that I could do for my country.”
Now, only a lung transplant can save Root’s life. But he can’t get one because the VA’s transplant center in Seattle has a cutoff age of 70.
Jamie McBride works as a transplant manager for the VA in Texas. He researched Root's case and now he's blowing the whistle on the VA’s transplant policy.
“This happens to veterans all over the United States,” McBride said.
“In the case of a lung transplant some facilities say that age 70 is as old as they will accept. Other centers say it should not really depend on chronological age but more on physiological age. How old do they look or how young do they look?” said McBride.
Root received a referral to be evaluated at UCSD health in La Jolla.
The doctors at UCSD told him he was actually a good candidate for a lung transplant because he's healthy and in good physical shape.
Unfortunately, since UCSD is a private hospital, it does not accept VA health insurance.
“This veteran has a local transplant center that has said for his age he looks good and that he would definitely be acceptable as a candidate for transplant consideration,” said McBride.
The Veterans Administration emailed the following statement to News 8:
VA’s patient selection criteria, as determined by VA transplant centers, are in place to ensure a fair and non-discriminatory distribution of organs, as well as optimal outcomes for transplant recipients.
Per federal regulations, VA provides eligible Veterans medically necessary care and treatment that meets the standard of care.
Mr. Root was deemed not to meet VA transplant center selection criteria, therefore there is no basis for referral or authorization to a non-VA provider.
“My message to them is to get their head out of their ass and get this thing moving, not only for me but for other veterans who are going to be in the same situation,” said Root.
“This doesn't only apply to lungs. It’s also hearts, kidneys and livers,” said Root.
Our whistle-blower said the VA has made exceptions in the past and under the newly signed VA Mission Act the agency could contract with UCSD to give Root the transplant he desperately needs.
“The VA needs to step up and help this gentleman. They need to afford him a contract with opportunity to be considered for transplant regardless of his age,” said McBride.
“He served his country. He did what he is supposed to do and now it's our time to do the same for him,” McBride said.
The VA claims specific regulations for the VA Mission Act still have not been written.
Root has set up a Facebook page so people can show support for his efforts to get a lung transplant.