Monday, March 30, 2009
Tennessee patients lose trust in VA hospitals after health scare
By Clay Carey • THE TENNESSEAN • March 30, 2009 For years, Gary Simpson received medical treatment at the VA hospital in Murfreesboro. Never once did he have a complaint. Now, Simpson and thousands more fear they may have caught serious diseases because of shortcomings at the government-run medical center. Simpson was one of nearly 6,400 current and former patients at the Alvin C. York Medical Center who were notified earlier this year that they might be at risk for HIV or other viral infections because of problems with equipment used to perform colonoscopies. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has said tubes used during the procedures had incorrect valves and may have exposed those veterans to body fluid from previous patients. At least 10 veterans treated in Murfreesboro have tested positive for hepatitis since their colonoscopies, but the VA says there is no way to know whether the test results are directly related to the equipment used at the hospital. Patients who went to at least two other VA health-care facilities have also been warned about exposure to diseases because of equipment issues. Members of Congress have questioned the VA's practices in the wake of the revelations, and patients have criticized the agency for not being forthcoming with information. "I felt real bad, and threatened by the possibility of getting all kinds of diseases from that procedure," said Simpson, 57, an Army veteran. Two separate tests for HIV and hepatitis came back negative, but he worries about other illnesses like syphilis that the tests would not catch. "It's hard to get it off my mind," Simpson said. "It just makes me sick to think of the unsanitary conditions … the nastiness." A VA spokeswoman said Friday that the agency is still going over the results of a systemwide review of the way the procedures are conducted. She could not say whether problems had been found at other hospitals. "This is an absolute priority," the spokeswoman, Katie Roberts, said. "We need to make sure we address this. … It could just be human error, but if it is something else, appropriate action will be taken." Problems at VA clinics Roberts said four patients treated at York have tested positive for hepatitis B and six have tested positive for hepatitis C, which is potentially life-threatening and can cause permanent liver damage. No one has tested positive for HIV, she said. After problems were discovered in Murfreesboro and at another clinic in Augusta, Ga., the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs ordered a re-evaluation of safeguards and procedures for cleansing instruments used in colonoscopies. About 1,800 veterans treated at an ear, nose and throat clinic in Augusta were warned that they might have been exposed to infections as a result of improper disinfection of medical instruments. Earlier this month, more than 3,000 patients at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Miami were advised to take tests for HIV and other diseases after the hospital discovered that equipment used to perform colonoscopies had not been properly sterilized. "We take full accountability. We potentially put them at risk," Roberts said. She could not say Friday if that means the VA would help pay for treatment for hepatitis or other diseases. In hopes of quelling fears about infections, the agency set up a call center for Murfreesboro patients to contact them with questions. More than 4,300 called with questions or to set up appointments to be tested for diseases. "We're going above and beyond," Roberts said. "We are constantly evaluating. If we can do something better, we are making sure we do it." Questions unanswered Others disagree. Gary Simpson's wife, Janice, said many of their questions about what happened at the Murfreesboro hospital had gone unanswered. "They don't want to talk about it and they refuse to give you answers," she said. The VA has said the risk of infection through its colonoscopies is very small. But the agency is unable to say exactly how many of its former patients have been tested. Some refused to be tested, the VA said, and others chose to be tested by private doctors. "Some of these veterans are having a hard time trusting the VA to test them after, in their opinion, the VA made a big mistake," said Nashville attorney Mike Sheppard. Sheppard said his firm is working with about 15 patients. Simpson said he would never get another colonoscopy at the Murfreesboro hospital, though he will have to continue to go there for specialized care. "It will be hard," he said. "The trust that I had with them will probably never be the same."