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Durbin, Obama Introduce Legislation to Address Quality of Care for Nation's Veterans

Press Release

Location: Washington, DC

Durbin, Obama Introduce Legislation to Address Quality of Care for Nation's Veterans

U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Barack Obama (D-IL) today introduced legislation to strengthen hiring practices and improve quality control measures at VA Medical facilities. The Illinois Senators wrote the bill in response to the troubling circumstances at the Marion Veterans Medical Center (VAMC) in southern Illinois which suspended all inpatient surgeries at the hospital on August 31 due to an unusual increase in deaths over a six-month period.

"We don't have all the facts yet about the situation in Marion, but we do know that what happened is unacceptable. During the course of the investigation, four top level executives have been relieved of their post, one surgeon has resigned and subsequently agreed not to practice medicine in the U.S. again, and four others have had their privileges restricted," said Durbin, who believes the circumstances at the Marion VAMC may point to greater problems within the VA medical system.

"Our veterans have made incredible sacrifices for this country, and when they return home we owe them world-class health care," Obama said. "We are going to get to the bottom of what happened at Marion because the veterans and their families affected by this tragedy deserve to know the facts. This legislation will help ensure situations like this one won't happen at other VA facilities."

The Veterans' Health Care Quality Improvement Act is designed to tighten the process for hiring doctors, introduce a new quality assurance mechanism, and attract more quality medical professionals to the VA. The bill would require doctors applying to VA to disclose all past malpractice payments and disciplinary actions against them and any ongoing investigations or outstanding allegations, as well as to send a written request to any state board where they have ever held a license asking that board to disclose this same information to the VA. These measures would likely have stopped the Marion VA hospital from hiring Dr. Veizaga-Mendez while the Massachusetts State Medical Board was investigating him for gross incompetence.

Today's legislation also calls for a designated doctor, with the appropriate seniority and qualifications, to monitor the quality of the surgeons on staff. This doctor will report directly to the leadership of the hospital but will also report to a similar quality assurance doctor at the regional level. This will ensure that if there is a lapse in leadership at the facility, which appears to have been the case at Marion, a separate avenue is there for employees to express concerns.

Finally, the bill proposes incentives to more easily recruit quality doctors to practice in VA facilities, where salaries are often not competitive with private hospitals or private practice. It calls on VA facilities to establish close affiliations with nearby medical schools, proposes to help relieve crushing medical school debt for young doctors willing to practice in a VA hospital and offers incentives to bring more senior doctors into a veterans hospital setting, even if on a flexible or part-time basis.

Durbin and Obama have worked for nearly two months on the ongoing investigations regarding the care provided in Marion and the hiring of Dr. Jose Veizaga-Mendez, who was allowed to practice medicine at the facility until August 2007 despite having agreed to no longer practice medicine in Massachusetts after cases of malpractice and disciplinary action. The Department of Veterans Affairs suspended all inpatient surgeries at the Marion VAMC in late August and the VA Inspector General has initiated an investigation. Four top hospital officials at Marion have also been reassigned until an Inspector General investigation is completed. Several times, Durbin and Obama have called on the former Secretary of Veterans, Jim Nicholson and the current Acting VA Secretary, Gordon Mansfield, to respond to information that has come to light regarding patient safety and the quality of care at the Marion VA Medical Center.

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