Patients deserve answers

Augusta has long held a proud place in the medical treatment of U.S. military personnel.

To help uphold that pride, the government should work vigorously to find out what -- if anything -- went wrong locally in the treatment of sick soldiers.

Starting in February, the Department of Veterans Affairs began notifying more than 11,000 people treated at three VA medical centers -- including one in Augusta -- to get blood checks, because they might have been exposed to infectious bodily fluids.

At last report, "unverified positive tests" by the VA have found one case of hepatitis B, one case of HIV and five cases of hepatitis C among those tested who received treatment at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center. Apparently, scopes used for looking into patients' noses and throats weren't properly cleaned.

Dr. Jim Bagian, the VA's chief patient safety officer, came off poorly in recent comments to the press. With the possibility raised that thousands of patients could have been exposed to infection at VA facilities, his response essentially was: Prove it.

He said that the patients won't be able to prove that they were exposed to improperly sterilized endoscopic equipment. "At this point I don't think we'll ever know" how the people became infected, Bagian said.

You know what? That's the wrong answer.

Here's what should've been issued by Bagian:

"It has been our honored mission to give the best, most attentive care possible to the brave men and women who have defended our country. If there is even the slightest chance that members of our military have become infected from exposure to incorrectly used or undercleaned equipment at VA facilities, every measure will be taken to track down the possible sources of those infections to help ensure that such unfortunate incidents never happen again."

Though the patients tested positive for viruses, it's true that they could have had the viruses for years before they sought VA treatment. Still, the VA mustn't give the impression of distancing itself from the problem.

The VA has said that they will care for all infected veterans for life. That's certainly commendable, though that's what the VA is supposed to be doing anyway.

But the goal here isn't to lob blame at medical personnel and heap scorn on them. It's above and beyond that. The greater goal is to maintain the sterling treatment facilities that our ailing warriors deserve.

And to do that, the VA must help produce answers.

The U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs has penciled in a June hearing date for the VA inspector general to report a review of any mistakes. Let's hope it yields answers and solutions.

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