ST. LOUIS — A St. Louis VA Medical Center has urged nearly 2,000 veterans to return for blood tests because inadequately sterilized equipment may have exposed them to viral infections such as hepatitis C and HIV during dental procedures.
The Department of Veterans Affairs sent out letters Monday to 1,812 people who had dental procedures at the John Cochran VA facility from Feb. 1, 2009, through March 11 of this year. The VA said quality reviews determined that some sterilization steps involved in preparing dental instruments were not in compliance with standards, creating a low risk of infection.
VA Medical Center spokeswoman Marcena Gunter said Wednesday that about 100 veterans had returned to the facility for testing and that hundreds of others have contacted VA to make arrangements. She was not aware of any infections uncovered.
Blood testing will screen for hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
"Though we believe the health risk is extremely low, it was not possible to rule out the possibility that one or more patients were exposed to an infection," a statement from the VA read. The agency said patients who have had dental procedures since March 11 are not at risk because procedures were corrected.
Gunter said there was a delay in notifying the veterans of the possibility of exposure because officials were evaluating the risk.
Two St. Louis-area congressmen sent letters to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki demanding a formal investigation.
"This is absolutely unacceptable," Democrat Russ Carnahan said in a statement. "No veteran who has served and risked their life for this great nation should have to worry about their personal safety when receiving much needed health care services from a Veterans Administration hospital."
Republican Todd Akin said those at fault should be "disciplined or dismissed."
"I cannot believe that the Veterans Administration has failed our St. Louis veterans in such a dramatic and disturbing manner," he said in a statement.
Barry Searle, director of the Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division for the American Legion, testified before Congress in May about quality concerns at VA medical facilities. He said in a phone interview that the VA health care system is strong overall, but that frequent turnover caused problems like the one that happened in St. Louis.
"It occurs across the board," Searle said. "They are hiring a lot of people very quickly. With new people, you have mistakes and training issues."
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the St. Louis VA hospital shut down the supply processing department for two weeks this winter to train staff and to sterilize endoscopes used in colonoscopies and other procedures. A month later, VA inspectors found several health and safety infractions related to endoscope sterilizations.
Other VA centers around the country have had problems. In 2007, Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington came under scrutiny over concerns about conditions at the hospital and treatment of veterans. At the time, St. Louis VA officials said they were working to fix similar problems.
The VA hospital in Marion, Ill., has come under scrutiny since 2007, when a former surgeon resigned after a patient bled to death following gall bladder surgery. All inpatient surgeries were suspended. The VA found at least nine deaths between October 2006 and March 2007 resulted from substandard care at the Marion hospital, and another 10 patients died after receiving questionable care that complicated their health.