May 31, 2009

VA Hospitals Face Tough Questions By Panel

Officials from the Department of Veteran Affairs will be facing some tough questions next month from a congressional panel regarding shoddy medical practices at several VA hospitals that have put thousands of former soldiers at risk of possible exposure to HIV and other infectious diseases.

In recent months, VA officials have been forced to recommend that more than 10,000 former VA patients in Miami, Murfreesboro, Tenn. and Augusta, Ga., go for blood tests to screen for possible infections.  According to a statement on the VA's official website, five veterans have tested positive for HIV and another 43 have tested positive for hepatitis.

The VA's June 16 hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Veteran's Affairs oversight and investigations subcommittee will focus on probing the causes of the apparent negligence as well as what measures have and will be taken to rectify them.  The VA's inspector general is currently under investigation.

In a phone interview on Thursday, U.S. Rep. Harry Mitchell of Arizona, the subcommittee chairman,  stated that the VA has a responsibility to care for patients who have tested positive for HIV and hepatitis, regardless of whether they contracted it from a VA hospital or not.

A leading physician for the VA has stated that there is no way to ever know definitively whether the veterans were infected with the diseases due to exposure to improperly cleaned equipment at the hospitals.  VA officials, however, have not denied the possibility.

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee was one of the first Congressmen to request an immediate investigation.

"As a physician and veteran, this is disturbing to me on so many levels and immediate action must be taken to ensure that all medical equipment is clean and safe," said Roe.

In December of last year, the VA's initial discovery of improper equipment use prompted a nationwide safety "step-up" across its 153 healthcare centers.  The VA says it has since taken steps to reeducate staff on equipment use and has also been in close contact with the equipment's manufacturers.

In the Murfreesboro hospital, VA officials explained that an incorrect valve on a device used in colonoscopies may have allowed residual body fluid to be transferred between patients, though they have yet been unable to determine whether this was a one-time incident or if it had been occurring for the five years since the equipment had been installed in 2003.

At the Miami clinic, VA investigators found that between May 2004 and March 2009, a section of equipment tubing that ought to have been cleaned between consecutive uses with each patient was only being cleaned once at the end of the day.

The story was similar for the Augusta hospital, where scopes used in ear-nose-throat check-ups were also being improperly cleaned, affecting patients from January 2008 to November 2008.

As of May 18, the VA said that roughly 8,000 of the 10,483 potentially affected patients had been notified of the results of their blood tests, while the remaining tests are still underway.

After receiving a colonoscopy at Murfreesboro in 2007, 57-year old veteran Gary Simpson says that VA officials have reassured him that he can trust the hospital's quality of care.

Mr. Simpson's test results turned out negative, and he says that he will continue going to the VA hospital for future treatment.

"They've apologized for it," he said.  "I'm not after money.  They've helped me a lot in the past.  But it still continues to be upsetting.


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