By Walter F. Roche Jr.
James J. Nagle, a North Carolina victim of the 2012 fungal meningitis outbreak is 83 and he's just hoping to see his share of a victims' trust fund before he dies.
Jose Ramos of New Jersey fears that by the time he gets his share it will be all eaten up by lawyers fees and the Medicare program.
From New Jersey to Michigan to Tennessee, Virginia and Florida victims of the outbreak, or in some cases their survivors, are still waiting for even a penny in payments four years after the deadly outbreak that sickened 778 patients in 20 states, killing 77 of them.
Though some victims already had died weeks before that date, it was on Sept. 18, 2012 that the first alarm was sounded by a Vanderbilt University Medical Center physician who, puzzled by the case of an elderly patient stricken with meningitis, had ordered additional lab tests.
Dr. April Pettit notified Tennessee Health Department officials of her findings and soon the public alarm was sounded.
Ultimately the outbreak was traced to a rogue drug compounding firm in a Boston, Mass. suburb where thousands of vials of fungus riddled sterile steroids had been prepared and shipped to health providers across the country.
Reams of legal filings later, victims have gone from anger to despair and back to anger again as they await promised payments from a bankruptcy and a series of court settlements.
Earlier this year victims were told payments would be made in July, then August and still now they wait even as many are still suffering both from the fungal meningitis but also the after effects of toxic anti-fungal drugs.
"I feel they are just prolonging
(it) so that the victims will be hurting so bad for money that they will
jump on what ever offer comes our way," said Jose Ramos, a New Jersey victim.
Ramos has payments due him both from the compounding firm's bankruptcy settlement, but also the New Jersey based clinic where he got his injection.
Though Ramos said has been notified that he is eligible for a little over $400,000 in payments, "after lawyer fees and Medicare I'm
gonna end up with change. Right now I have no words that can explain the
pain I'm in everyday. I've been out of work since this has happened to me."
Ramos, like other victims who were on the federal Medicare program, have learned that the federal government now wants its share of any settlement as reimbursement for the money Medicare paid for his treatment.
"I just want my life back the way it was," Ramos said.
William Briggs of Michigan, whose wife Phyllis was a victim, said that she is finally getting back in some ways to where she was before getting the shots of tainted methylprednisolone acetate. But she walks with a cane and can't go more than 100 yards at a time. She also has memory problems.
"We are very frustrated and downright angry at the constant delays in receiving any financial award. It is also apparent that any financial assistance is being reduced with delays, insurance reimbursement and increasing legal fees," Briggs wrote in an email response to questions.
"Enough is enough," Briggs added. "We, as most others that have been affected, are not getting any younger. Most (victims) that we know are in their 70's or 80's."
Briggs said he also has been frustrated in efforts to find out about a crime victims program through the Massachusetts Attorney General's office which is supposed to be targeted to outbreak victims.
"We have called, but have not heard a word (back) regarding the Victims Compensation Fund, Briggs said, adding that he feared any grant from that source will also "be delayed and reduced in the process."
Kathy Pugh, whose mother Evelyn Bates-March is a Michigan victim, has spearheaded efforts to get assistance for all victims from that crime victims program administered through the states by the U.S. Justice Department.
Pugh says it is "unbelievable" that four years after the outbreak "not a penny has gone to the victims."
She said that her mother's health has deteriorated "month by month,"after surgery and six months on dangerous antifungal medication.
"She is unable to care for her self and is in pain 24/7. She can't understand how Medicare (CMS) can take money away from the victims when
they are receiving so little."
Brenda Bansale, another Michigan victim, suffered for months from the after effects of her spinal injection and a subsequent infection and an incision that refused to heal.
She said she suffers mood swings and severe depression as just one continuing after effect.
But Bansale says despite all that and the long wait for any recompense, "It
hasn't all been bad. Being sick has actually helped me put things in
perspective and realize that life is too short to spend it being angry
Instead she said she has been speaking up and advocating for all the outbreak victims with government agencies and the general public.
But for most victims, the passing of another year has brought no solace.
Nagle, the North Carolina victim, said it makes no sense that even though the clinic where he was treated has already agreed to a settlement, he and other victims can't get any of that money, some $3.5 million.
"I'm 83-years-old and would hope to receive payment before I pass," he said.