Commentary: VA health care still has a lot of improvements to make

All is still not well at the Veterans Administration’s hospitals, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office, which conducted a follow-up review more than two years after thousands of veterans were put at risk of disease because of lax sterilization practices. This is simply unacceptable for the agency upon whom literally millions of veterans — men and women, newly returned from Afghanistan or aging World War II warriors — depend for health care and other services.

One of the VA hospitals still found wanting is Miami’s, where unsterilized equipment was used to perform colonoscopies between 2004 and 2009. At least 2,400 veterans had to be tracked down and notified that they could be at risk of contracting a disease, including HIV and hepatitis. What a terrible consequence these former soldiers had to face. All because colonoscopy equipment was rinsed instead of being chemically sterilized as required by the manufacturer.

Similar sloppy practices were found in Georgia and Tennessee. In all, more than 11,000 veterans were potentially affected. In Miami 17 veterans contracted either HIV or hepatitis. So far only one has died, of unrelated causes. And in 2010 the Miami facility announced that it had found 79 more South Florida veterans not included in the notification list. This year, it found 12 more.

But we wouldn’t even know as much as we do about the affected veterans if it weren’t for U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, and Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat. They demanded answers from Miami VA officials, and they promise to continue pressuring local VA facilities as well as the agency itself to improve medical practices.

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