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Congressmen give Cochran VA Center good marks for improvement

The John Cochran Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Louis got bipartisan praise on Wednesday for addressing customer service and equipment sterilization issues that have plagued it for nearly two years.

Here's a brief recap of those problems:

  • Everything started in June 2010, when 1,800 veterans who had been patients at the hospital's dental clinic received word that improper sterilization techniques had put them at risk for contracting HIV, and Hepatitis B and C. Four veterans tested positive, though it was not clear if the instruments caused the infections.
  • In January 2011, VA nurses accused the hospital of failing to keep basic supplies and instruments in stock, which one nurse said led to a patient's death. Aninspector general's report found no wrongdoing.
  • A month later, Cochran officials halted surgery after discovering spots and stains on equipment.
  • In May 2011, the VA inspector general and the Government Accountability Office each issued critical reports on the hospital, which also took a beating in a House Veterans Affairs committee hearing.

But in August, Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki said Cochran had "turned a corner." And today, a bipartisan group of lawmakers agreed.

"I walk out of the meeting with the director and the leadership today with a renewed confidence that they are moving in the right direction," said Florida Republican Congressman Jeff Miller, who currently chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "They are doing some of the things that need to be done here. I have full faith and confidence that the health care that is being provided to the veterans of this community is excellent care."

Missouri Democrat Russ Carnahan, a Veterans Affairs committee member, said the new dental clinic and the soon-to-open sterile processing unit are important signs of progress. But he said the biggest change has been cultural.

"Opening up the culture here for employees to have input, for patients to have input, for veterans service organizations to have input," he said. He says a follow-up report from the department's inspector general, plus one on customer service, will be important to measure the progress the hospital has made.

Carnahan's Republican colleague, Todd Akin, cautioned that he expected a few more speed bumps.

"It's difficult to turn a culture around overnight," Akin said. "I expect there's going to be places where they're trying to find people to really get things clicking perfectly. I think the trajectory is right."

No one was fired over the problems at Cochran, (director Rimaann Nelson called it counterproductive), but Akin says 300 people have changed jobs as a result.

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