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Tampa Bay area veteran opts out of treatment, ready to die to expose flaws in VA transplant process

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TRINITY, Fla. (WFLA) — Paul Umbaugh was a member of the honor guard that served president Ronald Reagan and also provided a funeral service presence as countless veterans were laid to rest during his career.

After delays and other issues put off a kidney transplant until early next year, the 61 year old made a drastic decision that he expects will put him under a draped American flag.

In January, he found a donor from the same honor guard unit he served with, after posting his dilemma on Facebook.

“It was definitely amazing because it was like within 30 seconds,” Umbaugh said. “I figured something would happen right away since I have someone who wants to be a donor for me.”

But Umbaugh said it took the VA four months to finally contact the donor. His wife Amanda said every time her husband tried to push the process forward, he was asked the same questions by VA personnel.

“Someone that is so sick?” Amanda said. “Nobody knows what’s going on with him and he has to explain it every time. Over and over.”

After the delays, Umbaugh went outside the VA through Community Care that would allow a civilian doctor to perform the transplant.

But while the VA agreed to cover his surgery, Umbaugh said the donor was asked to pay his own medical expenses.

“You have someone who can save my life,” Umbaugh said. “But you’re telling me they would have to pay to do it.”

The breaking point came when Umbaugh was told the transplant was scheduled for next year.

“I have a donor. I have someone who can give me a kidney,” Umbaugh said. “Why would I have to wait until January to get it done?”

Umbaugh said prayer with his wife helped him make a life or death decision. He decided to stop dialysis and was given 10 days to live.

“I’m supposed to be dead by Thursday,” Umbaugh said.

Umbaugh hopes exposing what happened to him will prompt the VA to streamline its transplant process to help other veterans get timely care.

“I’m sure it could save a lot of people’s lives if they knew what was actually going on,” Umbaugh said. “I hope this will make a difference. Something has to change.”

A study by the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology reported “waitlisted VA-insured patients had a lower adjusted likelihood of transplantation compared with patients with private insurance.”

VA transplant program criticism was rebutted by William Gunnar in the American Journal of Transplantation.

“The VA Transplant Program is long standing, well resourced, and shown to provide timely, high-quality, and comprehensive transplant care and services to our Nation’s Veterans,” Gunnar wrote.

James Haley VAMC spokesperson Kim Antos said the VA and private sector transplants are monitored by the same organization. Antos said she is looking into Umbaugh’s case.

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