Robert Morris Levy, 53, is a former Veterans Affairs pathologist accused of causing the deaths of at least 15 veterans due to mistakes he made while intoxicated on the job. He has been formally charged for three of those deaths.
Levy began working at the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2005 as the Chief of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Services. His job was to detect cancers and other diseases so that patients and other doctors could make informed decisions about treatment. Prosecutors allege that nearly 10 percent of the diagnoses Levy made over an 18-month period “involved clinical errors.”
The federal indictment against Levy was first filed in June. He was arrested on August 17, 2019, and the case was unsealed to the public on August 20.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Robert Levy Influenced Patients’ Treatment Plans By Analyzing Tissue Samples & Rendering a Diagnosis
Robert Morris Levy served a very important role in determining treatments for Veterans Affairs patients. As the Service Chief of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Services, Morris analyzed about 34,000 fluid and tissue samples over the course of 12 years at the medical center in Fayetteville, which was referred to as the VHSO in the indictment.
Prosecutors explained that Levy’s job involved “rendering diagnoses after examining fluid and tissue samples obtained from VHSO patients; entering information in patients’ medical records; assisting radiologists, surgeons, and others during procedures called needle biopsies; ensuring that quality standards were maintained for anatomical and clinical laboratory studies, and reporting errors that occurred at the VHSO pathology laboratory.”
As a pathologist, Levy did not meet directly with the patients or speak with them about medical care. But if, for example, a patient’s lab tests showed evidence of cancer, it was Levy’s job to identify this and render a diagnose so that the patient and other doctors could decide how best to proceed.
The patients who sought care at the VHSO included veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The Washington Post added that many of the patients were from “rural and often low-income communities of northwest Arkansas, southwest Missouri, and eastern Oklahoma.”
2. Levy’s Medical License Was Temporarily Suspended After He Was Proven Intoxicated at Work in 2016
Robert Morris Levy first had to answer questions in 2015 about whether he was drinking on the job. According to the indictment, other staff members reported in October of that year that Levy appeared to be intoxicated. An administrative panel questioned Levy, who denied drinking alcohol.
On March 22, 2016, staffers again reported that Levy appeared intoxicated when he arrived at the radiology department to assist with a biopsy. He was asked to take a drug and alcohol test. The indictment states that Levy’s blood alcohol content at the time was 396.0 milligrams per deciliter. According to alcohol.org, that’s a dangerous level of drunkenness and enough to cause a person to become extremely drowsy, feel confused, cause memory loss and even hinder a person’s ability to breathe.
The Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks suspended Levy’s privileges to practice medicine at the facility. In July of 2016, Levy agreed to participate in an in-patient alcohol treatment program. In September, he was also entered into an “impaired physician monitoring program” in anticipation of coming back to work. Levy agreed to remain sober and submit to random drug and alcohol tests. If he failed, his medical license could be permanently revoked.
3. Prosecutors: Robert Levy Engaged in Dangerous Activity to Hide That He Was Still Drinking Alcohol
Prosecutors pointed out in the indictment that as a trained pathologist, Robert Morris Levy was “familiar with the science of urinalysis, blood testing and toxicology.” Upon returning to work at the VHSO, after completing the alcohol treatment program, Levy knew he needed to pass random checks to keep his job.
Levy went around the system to make sure he passed the tests while continuing to consume an intoxicating substance, prosecutors say. Between November of 2016 and July of 2018, Levy provided 42 urine or blood samples. Each test came back negative for drugs or alcohol.
Prosecutors said Levy accomplished this by ingesting a chemical substance called “2-methyl-2-butanol,” which can be deadly if too much is ingested. It’s a type of alcohol that is not detected in routine tests. But the results are the same as if he was drinking vodka or tequila. In 2018, Levy was fired after he was arrested for driving under the influence.
4. Prosecutors Charged Levy on 31 Counts Including 3 Charges of Involuntary Manslaughter
Officials with Veterans Affairs say that Robert Morris Levy’s misdiagnoses led to the deaths of at least 15 patients. But prosecutors said they decided to charge Levy with only three deaths in order to present the most “prosecutable” case.
The prosecutors laid out the three cases in the indictment. They did not include the names of the patients.
One of the patients, a veteran identified as D.R.M. in the document, went in for biopsy in 2009. Levy ruled that the prostate tissue was negative for cancer. Because of that diagnosis, the man did not receive treatment and the disease was able to spread. The man died in 2016 from metastatic prostate cancer.
In February of 2014, patient J.R.G. was wrongly diagnosed with “diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. A few days later, Levy changed the diagnosis to “adenocarcinoma,” which was also incorrect. Prosecutors said Levy falsified the medical record to make it look as if a second pathologist had agreed with the diagnosis. The patient received the wrong medical treatment and died from small-cell carcinoma on July 26, 2014.
The third case prosecutors laid out also began in 2014. Levy was accused again of diagnosing a patient, J.D.Q., with the wrong form of cancer and again lying about a second physician having looked at the results. This patient died on September 13, 2015, after cancer had spread widely through his body.
Levy is also charged with 12 counts of Wire Fraud and 12 counts of Mail Fraud. Those charges have to do in part with the steps Levy took to obtain the alcohol he was ingesting that would not show up on drug tests.
Prosecutors also added 2 counts for Making a False Statement in Health Care Matters, and two additional counts for Making False Statements. Prosecutors said Levy lied about being under the influence of alcohol as well as about when he started taking “2-methyl-2-butanol.”
Inmate records show that Levy was arrested on August 17, 2019, and booked into jail in Washington County, Arkansas. He has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges. Levy’s trial is scheduled to begin on October 7.
5. Robert Levy is an Air Force Veteran
Robert Morris Levy is a veteran himself. The Washington Post reported that Levy served in the Air Force.
Levy’s most recent medical license was issued in 1997 by the Mississippi State Board, according to the indictment. That license allowed him to practice in Arkansas as well. Levy earned a salary of $225,000 per year from the Department of Veterans Affairs while he was working at VHSO.
At other times during his career, Levy held licenses to practice in California, Florida, and Louisiana.
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