WASHINGTON — More than two years after thousands of veterans were put at risk of disease from lax sterilization practices at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, federal inspectors said Tuesday that weaknesses still existed, posing "potential safety risks to veterans."
The Government Accountability Office report came as furious lawmakers at a House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing pressed a top VA official for answers, accusing the agency of stonewalling Congress.
"While I'm happy the VA is making efforts to reform its procedures ... we have been down this path before," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. "I'd like to say to my constituents that this problem has been solved after all these years, but I don't have that confidence."
The hearing came in response to continuing problems with improperly cleaned medical equipment at VA facilities across the country. In Miami, thousands of veterans were notified starting in 2009 that they might be at risk of disease after colonoscopies at the Miami Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Similar problems in VA facilities in Augusta, Ga., and Murfreesboro, Tenn., brought the total of potentially affected veterans to more than 11,000.
This year, a national VA investigation concluded that supervisors at a Dayton, Ohio, clinic had taken little action despite knowing for years that a clinic employee had reused dental equipment on at least 535 patients without sterilizing it first.
At a St. Louis VA hospital, surgical procedures were suspended from Feb. 2 to March 9 after surgical trays were found to be pitted with corrosion. It was the second problem there in a year.
The GAO review of six clinics — in Miami, St. Louis, Detroit, Palo Alto, Calif., Albany, N.Y., and Cheyenne, Wyo. — found that the VA's "lack of specificity and conflicting guidance" for developing training for some medical equipment "has led to confusion" at the clinics.
Robert Petzel, the VA's undersecretary for health, defended the agency's response but opened his remarks by apologizing "to the veterans who have been affected by these lapses in patient safety practices."
He said the agency had made considerable progress since the first reports of lax cleaning. He said training had been conducted in most facilities and that the agency had begun a certification process for its technicians.
"I think we're doing a good job," he said. "Not a perfect job, but I think we're on the right path."
But members of Congress seemed unsatisfied, and they quizzed Petzel on how many VA officials had been fired for shoddy work performance.
Petzel said the agency had "proposed removal" in several incidents but that employees had chosen to resign or retire. He said the agency also had issued reprimands, suspensions and "letters of counsel."
The VA's inspector general testified to a problem with leadership at several local facilities, including the Dayton clinic. John Daigh, the assistant inspector general for health care inspections, said he was recommending that technicians have better access to senior leadership, as physicians and nurses already do.
"Current lines of communication may not be adequate to get the technicians' concerns to facility leaders," he said.
Unlike some congressional hearings that break along partisan lines, Democrats joined Republicans in assailing the VA.
Missouri Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay asked whether the government should consider giving veterans vouchers to get care elsewhere.
"If you can't do the job for the people who deserve it, maybe we ought to look at another system," Clay said.
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