Panels to probe sterilization problems at St. Louis VA clinic

Thursday, July 29, 2010 | 4:53 p.m. CDT; updated 9:39 a.m. CST, Thursday, February 17, 2011

ST. LOUIS — Two independent panels have agreed to investigate sterilization problems at the St. Louis Veterans Affairs Medical Center that put nearly 2,000 veterans at risk for HIV and hepatitis, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan said Thursday.

The Government Accountability Office — the investigative arm of Congress — has been looking into mistakes made at VA medical centers across the country, but will now also look specifically at sterilization mistakes made at the St. Louis dental clinic, the lawmaker said.

Meanwhile, the inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs has agreed to investigate the mistakes made in St. Louis, Carnahan said.

Those investigations are in addition to an internal probe begun by the VA soon after it announced in June that 1,812 veterans who underwent dental procedures in St. Louis from Feb. 1, 2009, through March 11, 2010, were potentially exposed to HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

At a congressional hearing in St. Louis earlier this month, several lawmakers called the internal investigation inadequate and cited the need for independent review.

"These independent investigations are critical to make sure we have a full understanding of what happened so we can identify and fix any systemic problems that made such a grave error possible," said Carnahan, a Democrat from St. Louis.

The GAO's investigation is looking at reports of problems concerning processing reusable medical equipment at several VA medical centers. The GAO's final report is expected in early 2011.

Last year, the VA said 10,000 veterans treated at its hospitals in Miami, Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Augusta, Ga., were potentially exposed to HIV and hepatitis, also because of faulty sterilization, in this case of equipment used for colonoscopies and other procedures. Veterans, some who had colonoscopies as long ago as 2003, were urged to get blood tests.

The investigation by the inspector general was requested last week in a letter from the Missouri and Illinois congressional delegations.

The VA sent letters in late June to the potentially exposed veterans treated at St. Louis, urging them to get blood tests. The VA has said that 1,144 veterans have been tested, and 809 tested negative. But of the remaining 335, it was unclear how many tested positive for one or more of the illnesses. The Associated Press has made repeated requests for a breakdown since last week, without success.

Carnahan said he has been frustrated by the lack of details.

"If there are veterans who have tested positive, regardless of whether they were exposed through the dental clinic or through some other completely unrelated source, they need to know so that they can get the treatment they need and take needed precautions to keep their spouses and family members safe," he said.

Messages left with a VA spokeswoman on Thursday were not immediately returned.

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