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Congress, GAO, critical of oversight at Department of Veterans Affairs

John A Cochran hospital
Bill Greenblatt | UPI | File photo
A new GAO report is critical of the way the VA oversees sterilization at hospitals like John Cochran in St. Louis, where lax sterilization put 1,800 dental clinic patients at a slight risk of HIV or hepatitis.

Representatives Russ Carnahan and William Lacy Clay were among the government officials with sharp criticism today for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Carnahan and Ohio Republican Michael Turner, who represents the Dayton area, pushed for the House Veterans Affairs Commitee hearingto address concerns about the cleanliness of instruments at VA hospitals.

Here's some background on what led up to today's hearing:

  • More than 1,800 St. Louis veterans were notified last June that they were at risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis because instruments were not property sterilized. 
  • Four individuals who underwent testing were found to have hepatitis, but officials have no way of knowing if the instruments were the cause. 
  • In addition, a dentist at the VA hospital in Dayton, OH was found to have used the same pair of gloves on multiple patients. At least nine patients have tested positive there.

"We have good policies and procedures," Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA undersecretary of health, said. "The problem is, are people following those policies and procedures? It's a failure of leadership."
Petzel's statement got no argument from members of the panel.

"We may have the best scientific procedures there are in the world," Carnahan said, "but if it doesn't affect the human impact on veterans, it's not a good system."

"The issues go beyond the incidents themselves,"ranking member Bob Filner said. Filner joined Carnahan in St. Louis in January as nurses unveiled concernsabout critical supplies not being stocked. "They go to the communication within the VA. It goes to communication with our VA patients. It seems to me that the culture of culture of covering up is too prevalent here. We've been here before."

If the problems cannot be addressed, Clay said, "perhaps it is time for the St. Louis region to  region to try a voucher system for patients to receive medical attention from our two world-class medical facilities that are stones-throw away from the VA Cochran."

Also today, the Government Accountability Office released a new report that is sharply critical of the steps the VA is taking to make sure that employees at its 153 hospitals are doing enough to keep reusable medical equipment clean.

The VA, the report says, is "unable to systematically identify and address non-compliance" with certain sterilization requirements, "which poses potential risks to the safety of veterans."

Though the department receives information from its regional offices about hospitals that aren't complying and the plans individual hospitals have in place to correct the problems, the GAO said the VA doesn't use those reports to identify reoccurring problems.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.