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Letter to The Honorable R. James Nicholson, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Letter

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Durbin, Obama Ask for Explanation of Increased Deaths at Marion VA Center

U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Barack Obama today sent a letter to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Jim Nicholson asking specific questions about the VA's response to a recent spike in deaths at the Marion, Illinois VA Medical Center and why a doctor who had been barred from practicing in another state continued to practice at the Marion VA Center until just last month.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has suspended all inpatient surgeries at the medical center until an investigation into the deaths is completed. Additionally, four top hospital officials have been reassigned. Dr. Jose Veizaga-Mendez was allowed to practice medicine at the medical center until August 2007 despite having to surrender his license in Massachusetts after numerous cases of malpractice.

The Illinois Senators noted that: "The recent revelation that VAMC employed a surgeon who had been barred from practicing in another state casts doubt on the adequacy of the VA's system of credentialing and quality control. It also raises serious concerns about the response to the unusual spike in deaths at Marion earlier this year…We want to know when the spike in deaths first came to your attention, when you first learned about reports of Dr. Veizaga-Mendez's incompetence, what you did about it, and what additional protocols should have been in place to prevent unnecessary risk to the veterans whose care is entrusted to you.

Durbin and Obama sent a letter to Secretary Nicholson on September 17 asking for more information on the ongoing investigation into a spike in deaths at the Marion facility from October 2006 to March 2007. In the letter, Senators Durbin and Obama sought assurances that the travel and scheduling needs of any veterans who must now be redirected to other facilities to receive their needed surgeries will be facilitated. They noted: "We know you agree that we should avoid further complicating this situation by creating additional stress or delays for our veterans in need of surgery."

Text of the letter appears below:

September 24, 2007

The Honorable R. James Nicholson
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20420

Dear Secretary Nicholson:

We are writing a second letter to you because we have been made aware of additional circumstances at the Marion, IL, Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC). It is extremely distressing to learn that Dr. Jose Veizaga-Mendez has been practicing medicine at this facility in light of documentation of numerous cases of malpractice on his part in Massachusetts.

The recent revelation that VAMC employed a surgeon who had been barred from practicing in another state casts doubt on the adequacy of the VA's system of credentialing and quality control. It also raises serious concerns about the response to the unusual spike in deaths at Marion earlier this year. Given that Dr. Veizaga-Mendez continued to practice at Marion until August 2007, it would appear that the VA's investigative response to this situation was neither quick nor decisive. We want to know when the spike in deaths first came to your attention, when you first learned about reports of Dr. Veizaga-Mendez's incompetence, what you did about it, and what additional protocols should have been in place to prevent unnecessary risk to the veterans whose care is entrusted to you.

Additionally, we would appreciate a response to the following questions by October 5, 2007.

1. Did Dr. Veizaga-Mendez treat any patients who have died at the facility? If so, how many and what was his role in each case?
2. How long has Dr. Veizaga-Mendez been employed at the Marion VAMC? Please describe in detail the background check that the VA performed before hiring Dr. Veizaga-Mendez, including whether the National Practitioner Data Bank was queried?
3. Was the VA aware that the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation was investigating whether to suspend or revoke his Illinois license? If so, when did you become aware of that fact and what action did you take?
4. In general, what kind of background checks are performed by the VA before hiring medical staff who will be providing direct care to our veterans?
5. What interim and long term steps is the VA taking to improve its system in order to ensure these problems do not arise in any other VA medical facilities?
6. What plans are underway within the VA to discuss these tragedies with the affected families and provide compensation?

We look forward to your prompt response.

Sincerely,
Richard J. Durbin
United States Senator

Barack Obama
United States Senator

Cc: Dr. Michael Kussman
Dr. Gerald Cross


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