The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will personally apologize to veterans who received erroneous letters saying they had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, agency spokeswoman Katie Roberts said Tuesday.
The veterans also will receive an explanation about how "this unfortunate and regrettable error" occurred and reassurances that the letters do not confirm diagnoses of the fatal neurological disease, she said. Roberts did not say whether the agency has determined how the error occurred.
VA employees were still thumbing through case files, trying to determine exactly how many veterans mistakenly received letters intended to inform sufferers of ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, of benefits available to them or surviving spouses and children.
"We understand we made a mistake," Roberts said. "We had every good intention."
Roberts said the VA mailed more than 1,800 letters last week and has been notified by less than 10 veterans who received the letters in error. However, a Gulf War veterans group that provides information, support and referrals about illnesses to military members estimates at least 1,200 veterans received the letters by mistake.
Denise Nichols, vice president of the National Gulf War Resource Center, said panicked veterans in at least a dozen states have contacted her group.
ALS is a rapidly progressive disease that attacks the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscles and typically kills people within five years.
Veterans like former Air Force reservist Gale Reid in Montgomery, Ala., and former Army Sgt. Samuel Hargrove in Henderson, N.C., were initially suspicious of the letters, but went through the pain of not knowing whether they had ALS.
Reid said she incurred about $3,000 worth of medical expenses securing a second opinion from a civilian doctor. Reid hopes the VA will pay for the tests, but Roberts said she had to check on any reimbursements.
Jim Bunker, president of the veterans group, said someone at the VA told him the mistake was caused by a coding error in which veterans with undiagnosed neurological disorders were inadvertently assigned the code for ALS. The VA uses more than 8,000 codes for various diseases and illnesses, he said.
Nichols said her group was satisfied with the VA's response.
"All we wanted was to get the word out," Nichols said. "I think we've accomplished what we set out to do."