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Former V.A. Doctor Charged in Deaths of 3 Veterans

The federal authorities have charged a Department of Veterans Affairs pathologist in Arkansas with three counts of involuntary manslaughter, accusing him of intentionally botching diagnoses, falsifying records to cover his tracks and working under the influence of an intoxicating substance.

The authorities said Tuesday that Robert Morris Levy, 53, was responsible for the deaths of three veterans through incorrect and misleading diagnoses, and, in two of the cases, for falsely reporting that a second opinion had confirmed his judgment. Prosecutors also said he concealed his use of a mind-altering substance while working, in defiance of his commitment to abstain from drugs after he was found to be drunk at work in 2016.

Mr. Levy had been the chief of pathology and laboratory medical services at the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks from 2005 to 2018. He was arrested last week and pleaded not guilty at a hearing on Tuesday.

“This indictment should remind us all that this country has a responsibility to care for those who have served us honorably,” Duane Kees, the United States attorney for the western district of Arkansas, said in a statement. “When that trust is violated through criminal conduct, those responsible must be held accountable. Our veterans deserve nothing less.”

In addition to the manslaughter charges, a federal grand jury indicted Mr. Levy on 12 counts of wire fraud, 12 counts of mail fraud and four counts of making false statements.

In 2016, Mr. Levy was suspended after being found to have a blood alcohol content of .396 while on duty. He returned to work months later after completing a treatment program and agreeing to abstain from “alcohol and other mood-altering substances” while submitting to random drug tests, according to the indictment. He was suspended a second time in October 2017 after the hospital said he worked under the influence again, and he was dismissed in April last year.

Prosecutors said Mr. Levy had been consuming 2-methyl-2-butanol, a chemical substance known as 2M2B that has an intoxicating effect but is not detectable in routine drug testing.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Kees strongly cautioned against anyone getting any ideas of abusing the substance. It is extremely dangerous, with “a very minute difference between using it successfully and fatally,” he said.

“I don’t think that anyone could imagine that a pathologist would use his knowledge and expertise in such a way,” he said. “This substance, if you don’t have the right proportions, is lethal.”

The authorities said Mr. Levy purchased the substance 12 times from June 2017 through 2018, a period during which he was required to submit to drug tests. All of his tests during that time came back negative.

The three veterans died after Mr. Levy “knowingly put in a false diagnosis” for them, Mr. Kees said, without offering an explanation of what the motivation might have been. Mr. Levy then, in two of the cases, reported that a second pathologist had agreed with his diagnosis, when in fact “a first-year medical student would have been able to spot something,” Mr. Kees said.

Prosecutors said one patient died of prostate cancer after Mr. Levy determined his biopsy showed he did not have cancer, according to The Associated Press. One died of squamous cell carcinoma after Mr. Levy misdiagnosed the patient with a different form of carcinoma, and another patient with small cell carcinoma died after he was treated for a different type of cancer.

Veterans Affairs officials said in January that outside pathologists had found more than 3,000 errors in a review of nearly 34,000 cases Mr. Levy had handled since 2005, according to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The 8.9 percent error rate is more than 12 times the normal error rate of 0.7 percent, a department official said.

Daniel Victor is a Hong Kong-based reporter, covering a wide variety of stories with a focus on breaking news. He joined The Times in 2012 from ProPublica. @bydanielvictor

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