The Department of Veterans Affairs must do better job of finding and testing veterans who may have been exposed to contaminated medical equipment at the Miami VA hospital, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Thursday.
The Miami Republican spoke to The Associated Press after a briefing by VA officials in Washington that she requested for members of Congress and their staff.
More than 10,400 former patients have been getting follow-up blood tests because of VA mistakes with equipment used in colonoscopies at Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Miami and at the agency's Augusta, Ga., ear, nose and throat clinic. The equipment is used for colonoscopies and ear, nose and throat procedures.
The VA has said that five former patients at the three hospitals had tested positive for HIV, three of them are in Miami. A total of 34 have tested positive for hepatitis. It's not clear if the infections came from VA treatment.
Ros-Lehtinen said the number of people of potentially affected in Miami has decreased from 3,348 to 2,609. The number went down because some patients scheduled for a colonoscopy may not have shown up for appointments or were not given an examination. Out of that risk pool, all but 332 have been notified, VA officials said at the briefing.
But Ros-Lehtinen said the number yet to be notified remains "too high."
She said the VA has sent each person two letters and called multiple times, but they may have moved or changed telephone numbers. And she said the VA needs to try harder.
"We just can't say, 'Oh well we tried our best...,'" Ros-Lehtinen said.
She added, "It's shameful and it sounds like a bad movie plot."
VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts did not immediately comment on Ros-Lehtinen's statements, but said there was no new information given during the briefing.
Ros-Lehtinen said the VA is reaching out to homeless shelters around the country to see if they can find these veterans. She also said 66 people in Miami have declined testing.
"I encourage the VA Miami folks to be more aggressive in trying to encourage these veterans to be tested, for the veterans' own health as well as the health of the community," she said.
Ros-Lehtinen said the problem was discovered Dec. 1, 2008 in Murfreesboro and the VA contacted other facilities about three weeks later, but it wasn't until March 4 that the Miami hospital found a problem.
She said Congress must "make sure that this scandal will never unfold again because the veterans deserve the very best of care."
A staff member from South Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz's office was also at the meeting.
"We are deeply concerned by the fact that this happened and the implications," said the Democrat's spokesman, Jonathan Beeton.