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Hearing of the House Committee on the Veterans' Affairs - Veterans at Risk: The Consequences of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center Non-Compliance


Location: Washington, DC

This hearing will now come to order.

I would like to thank everyone for attending, especially the veterans who are with us today. I would like to thank the staff of Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse for their generosity in providing a space for today's hearing.

Today, I join my colleagues Mr. Miller, Mr. Carnahan, Mr. Costello, Mr. Blunt, Mr. Shimkus, Mr. Akin, Mr. Clay, and Mr. Luetkemeyer in examining an incident involving reusable dental equipment at the John Cochran VA Medical Center. As a result of the lapse in the protocol for cleaning dental equipment, more than 1,800 veterans have been put at risk--possibly having been exposed to hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV.

The purpose of today's hearing is to get to the bottom of the events leading up to the lapse in protocol for cleaning dental equipment. We need to examine the steps that VA officials took once they learned of this incident, and evaluate whether they were effective in providing timely information to veterans. I am also concerned with VA's lack of transparency. Members of Congress did not receive appropriate information to allow them to relay information to their constituents in a timely way. When mistakes are made, honesty and truthfulness are the only way to begin to rebuild trust with the public.

We need to explore how best to deal with the aftermath of this shameful incident. First, we must affirm that VA properly identified all potentially affected veterans and that these veterans get tested for hepatitis and HIV. Most assuredly we must deal with the issues of accountability when standardized procedures are not followed and veterans are put at risk, along with again reviewing VA's oversight policies to ensure that mistakes like these will not happen again. Finally, today's meeting presents us with the opportunity to hear directly from veterans and better understand the questions and fears they face while dealing with this incident.

My biggest concern is that we've been here before. In December 2008, I was notified of improper reprocessing of endoscopes which put thousands of veterans in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Miami, Florida, at possible risk of hepatitis and HIV. And in February 2009, another one thousand veterans in Augusta, Georgia, received notifications that they were at risk for hepatitis and HIV because of improper processing of ear, nose, and throat endoscopes. And just last week, the Department notified 79 additional veterans in Florida, whom they failed to notify previously, that they were also at risk. Clearly, VA has had issues with ensuring the sterility of reusable medical equipment in the past and clearly they have yet to resolve these problems, as evidenced by the most recent incidents in St. Louis and Miami.

Most veterans--and Members of Congress -- are getting their information from news outlets. These are just some of the headlines that we have been reading in the last couple of weeks:

* Washington Post, "HIV Scare Causing New Problems for Veterans Affairs";
* New York Times, "Veterans at St. Louis Center Are Told of Exposure Risk";
* CNN, "VA Hospital May Have Infected 1,800 Veterans with HIV";
* St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "Faulty Dental Sterilization in St. Louis."

In the July 2 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Chief of Dental Services at the John Cochran VA Medical Center is quoted as saying that, "Things are done to get votes, and that's a shame" -- implying that this hearing here today is for show. Frankly, I am angered by this comment. By blaming politics, this is simply an attempt to shift the attention away from the incident and minimize the mistakes that were made.

Instead, I challenge the Chief of Dental Services -- in fact, I challenge the entire leadership of the Department of Veterans' Affairs--to take responsibility for this disgraceful incident and show America and our veterans what they are doing to better understand why and how this inexcusable lapse in dental sterilization occurred. Already facing an uphill battle, VA now must work harder and longer to improve training, implement standardized procedures, and regain the trust of the veterans it serves.

I look forward to hearing today's testimonies.

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