Veterans exposed to HIV get mixed information

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. --- An attorney for veterans potentially exposed to HIV and other infections by colonoscopies at three Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals 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 declined to comment about 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 like other VA patients. She said the VA has been advising the affected patients of that option.

But Nashville lawyer Mike Sheppard describes that claims process as cumbersome, particularly for veterans who have tested positive for HIV and hepatitis.

"Some of these veterans are scared," said Mr. Sheppard, who has about 50 of the VA's former endoscopic patients as clients. He said complaints about VA medical care must be filed under the federal torts claim law.

Mr. 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."

Ms. 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.

Ms. Roberts said Thursday that of more than 400,000 pending claims against the VA, less than 3 percent are related to medical care. She said she is trying to provide VA records on those medical-related claims.

An update on the VA's Web site shows that a seventh veteran has tested positive for HIV among the former patients exposed to mistakes with rigging or cleaning endoscopic equipment at VA hospitals in Augusta, Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Miami.

Twelve more veterans among those who have heeded VA warnings to get follow-up blood checks have tested positive for hepatitis B, and 36 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 top VA doctor has said there is no way to trace the infections to the VA -- or the mistakes he described as human error -- but some medical experts disagree.

A report by the VA inspector general, presented to congressional oversight panels, suggests 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.

Ms. 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.

The VA on its Web site says it "will continue to notify, inform, and treat all potentially impacted veterans, regardless of risk, cause, or harm. Many people incur injury as a result of medical errors that could have been prevented -- Unfortunately, many health care organizations do not voluntarily disclose their problems to patients or the broader public. In contrast, it is VA's policy to actively seek out quality problems, discuss them openly, and tackle them head on."