By Wesley Brown
U.S. Rep. John Barrow requested Tuesday that a congressional hearing be held at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta to help federal officials determine why three cancer patients died needlessly because of a lack of care in the hospital's botched gastrointestinal program.
Barrow, D-Ga., submitted the request in a letter to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, a day after two veteran advocacy groups sought justice for the three patient deaths.
This week, the congressman said he plans to speak to the committee's chairman and ranking members to discuss the issue.
He said he will meet with members of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations to "get to the bottom of what happened, and ensure it does not happen again."
"What happened at the Charlie Norwood VA is totally unacceptable," said Barrow, an Augusta Democrat whose 12th District represents much of the region. "We have a responsibility to provide the best care to our nation's veterans, and clearly, that did not happen. We must hold the personnel responsible for these missteps accountable, and I'm committed to ensuring veterans get the best care possible in the future."
On Tuesday, Barrow said he met with Charlie Norwood Director Bob Hamilton in Augusta to discuss the steps they are taking to prevent these problems from happening in the future. In addition, the congressman has contacted Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki regarding the issue.
Health care administrators at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center admitted last week that the hospital botched its gastrointestinal program so badly that consultations were delayed unnecessarily for 5,100 veterans between 2011 and November 2012.
The medical center's executive office has put the death toll at three cancer patients, but said no more are expected and that the backlog has been reduced to 540 unresolved consults after extra personnel and equipment were brought in for two to three months to improve the program.
On Monday, the list of veteran advocacy groups demanding answers grew.
The American Legion joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Uniformed Service Disability Retirees in criticizing the gastrointestinal clinic.
"We are outraged about what happened at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center," Verna Jones, the director of the American Legion's Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division said in a phone interview. "Our veterans deserve much better and we are greatly concerned about the treatment they received at the hospital. For some, it cost them their lives and that is unacceptable."
Jones' staff leads the legion's "System Worth Saving" program, a 10-year-old task force comprised of regional and national health care experts from the American Legion that evaluates VA health-care quality at 12 to 15 medical centers per year.
The program has evaluated centers in Atlanta and Pittsburgh and Jones said once the task force sees an official report from Congress, it will decide what the next step is for the Charlie Norwood VA Center.
She said, though, that the program could possibly come to Augusta.