CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. An attorney for veterans potentially exposed to HIV and other infections by endoscopies at three Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, including Augusta's Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, said his clients are waiting to hear if they will be compensated for mistakes that led to congressional hearings and new VA spending on patient safety.
A spokeswoman for the VA would not comment on prospects for compensation. Katie Roberts said the more than 10,000 veterans who have been getting follow-up blood checks since February have the option of filing a complaint in a claim, just as other VA patients do.
But Nashville lawyer Mike Sheppard describes that process as cumbersome, particularly for veterans who have tested positive for HIV and hepatitis.
"Some of these veterans are scared," said Sheppard, who has about 50 of the VA's former endoscopic patients as clients.
Sheppard said his clients are telling him that VA officials have sent them letters and in some cases have contacted them by telephone "stating they are sending them some documents and they will be considering some compensation."
Roberts said the VA has made no offer of any special compensation. She declined to comment about any potential benefit for the affected veterans beyond continuing to provide them medical care. Roberts said today that she is trying to provide VA records on medical complaints.
An update on the VA's Web site shows that a seventh veteran among those exposed to mistakes with rigging or cleaning of endoscopic equipment at VA hospitals in Murfreesboro, Miami and Augusta has tested positive for HIV.
Another 12 veterans have tested positive for hepatitis B, and 36 others have tested positive for hepatitis C.
The VA and independent doctors say those rates of infection are far below what would normally be found among similar populations.
A report by the VA inspector general, presented to congressional oversight panels, suggests that the VA has more widespread problems. Surprise inspections in May found that only 43 percent of VA medical centers had standard operating procedures in place for endoscopic equipment used in colonoscopies and other procedures and could show they properly trained their staffs for using the devices.
Roberts has said the VA is releasing $26 million from reserve funds to buy new equipment to improve the cleaning of endoscopes and other reusable medical devices.
Some veterans were warned in February to get tested, and more were alerted in March when the Miami hospital backtracked on its previous conclusion that it didn't have a problem.