Augusta group will testify on recent VA problems

Augusta and regional VA officials will be among those testifying before a congressional panel about mistakes that put patients at risk of possible exposure to HIV and other infectious body fluids at three VA hospitals.


Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center Director Rebecca Wiley and Larry Biro, VISN 7 Network Director, which oversees Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, will be among those headed to Washington to appear before the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs oversight and investigations on June 16 in Washington.

About 1,000 patients in the Augusta VA’s Ear, Nose and Throat clinic were potentially exposed to improperly sanitized endoscopic equipment between Jan. 2 and Nov. 6 last year. They were advised to come in for follow-up tests and one has tested positive for HIV, two had hepatitis B and five have hepatitis C.

Overall about 10,000 former VA patients in Miami, Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Augusta were advised to get checked. In all, five have tested positive for HIV and 43 have tested positive for hepatitis, according to an update on the VA Web site Friday.

The VA’s inspector general is also currently investigating.

The subcommittee chairman, U.S. Rep. Harry Mitchell D-Arizona, said Thursday in a phone interview that veterans who are testing positive for HIV and hepatitis, “whether it came from these improper procedures or not, the VA has a responsibility to take care of these patients.”

A top VA doctor has said no one will ever know if the positive tests were caused by exposure to improperly operated or cleaned endoscopic equipment The VA has not denied the mistakes.

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., was among those in Congress who asked for an immediate investigation.

“As a physician and a 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,” Roe said in a statement.

The VA’s initial December discovery of an equipment mistake at Murfreesboro led to a nationwide safety “step-up” at its 153 medical centers. Since then, the problems have been discussed with staff at all VA hospitals and with representatives of the equipment manufacturer, Olympus American. The VA has said problems discovered at more than a dozen other of its medical facilities, which officials declined to identify, did not require follow-up blood tests for patients.

In Murfreesboro, the equipment – an incorrect valve – may have allowed body fluid residue to transfer from patient to patient. VA officials have said they don’t know if that happened just one day or for more than five years since the equipment was installed in 2003.

In Miami, a tube that was supposed to be cleaned after each colonoscopy was instead cleaned at the end of each day, affecting patients between May 2004 and March 2009. And in Augusta, the ENT scopes used for looking into the nose and throat weren’t properly cleaned.

The follow-up blood tests are continuing. As of May 18, VA records show about 8,000 of the 10,483 possibly affected patients have been notified of their follow-up blood test results.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, whose Tennessee district includes the VA hospital at Murfreesboro, said in a statement that he hopes the House subcommittee can “get to the bottom of how this unfolded and make certain it doesn’t happen again.”

One veteran who had a colonoscopy at Murfreesboro in 2007 and has since tested negative for infections said he has VA officials have tried to assure him that he can trust the hospitals’ quality of care. He said he plans to return there for future treatment, but wants an explanation.

Gary Simpson, 57, of Spring City, said that despite the follow-up blood tests, his marriage has suffered because he and his wife have worried since the VA first notified him about the mistake in February.

“They’ve apologized for it,” Simpson 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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