U.S. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, D- Newport News, talks with the media after a tour of the Hampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center. His visit was prompted by the death of veteran Floyd Washabaugh.

The psychiatric ward at the Hampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center neglected physical problems in at least two cases.

By admitting themselves to the psychiatric unit at the Hampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Floyd "Chip" Washabaugh and Glen Brennan were asking for help. Washabaugh, a 63-year-old combat veteran wounded in Vietnam, was suffering from depression. He didn't want to commit suicide, he told physicians, but was convinced that he would soon die.

Brennan, a 35-year-old husband and new father, wanted to kick a drug addiction that he'd fought for several years.

Both men died at the VA hospital after frequent complaints of physical pains: Washabaugh was often short of breath, and Brennan had back pain -- later determined to be from a fractured vertebra.

Their complaints were largely ignored by the staff, according to Washabaugh's medical record and a malpractice lawsuit filed by Brennan's widow.

Their deaths, a physician and three nurses familiar with the unit told the Daily Press, aren't anomalies. They are part of a pattern of mental health patients not receiving treatment -- or receiving the wrong treatment -- for physical problems.

"There is a callous disregard for medical issues of patients on the unit," said the doctor, who asked not to be named. "The unit is the most dangerous place to be at the VA."

When Washabaugh complained of trouble breathing, a doctor in the unit prescribed Washabaugh an anti- anxiety medication.

Washabaugh died in January of a blood clot in his lungs.

The unit's medical staff decided that Brennan's complaints of back pain were an attempt to get drugs, according to his widow's lawsuit. He died in 2001 of a drug overdose, which his family thinks was his way of self-medicating.

This year, the hospital paid $210,000 to settle the lawsuit and acknowledged that it was responsible for Brennan's death.

A spokeswoman for the hospital said there had been three deaths in the unit in the last 10 years. "That is very minimal in a 10-year span of time," said Wanda Mims, director of the Hampton medical center.

But that number doesn't include patients, such as Washabaugh, who got sick in the unit and then died after being transferred to the intensive care unit or the emergency room.

The Daily Press asked two weeks ago how many patients from the unit have died after being transferred to the ICU or the ER, but the hospital has yet to provide that information, saying it would require extensive research.

Mims said each death was taken seriously.

"We're all about providing quality care," she said. "Are we perfect? No. No institution is perfect. But we do have systems in place to identify (problems) to ensure we are addressing issues. We're here to provide great care to our patients."

The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, which accredits the Hampton VA, requires hospitals to review any deaths considered unexpected, and its guidelines "encourage" hospitals to submit reports about those deaths.

Submitting the reports, the commission says, sends a "message to the public that (the organization) is doing everything possible to ensure that such an event will not happen again."