Thursday, June 18, 2009

The VA’s highest standard of excellence and commitment. Not!

The Department of Veterans Affairs has known for months that non-sterile equipment used in its facilities may have exposed 10,000 veterans to HIV, Hepatitis, and other infections. These VA “mistakes” and “human error” involve endoscopic equipment used for colonoscopies and other procedures at hospitals in Miami, Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Augusta, Ga. – and date back to 2003.

After eight years in the US Army, three combat tours, and an honorable discharge could my son have been exposed to more fatal incompetence?

It was fatal incompetence that electrocuted a member of his elite military unit in the shower after KBR contractors wired that facility in Baghdad. It was fatal incompetence that saw National Guardsmen die of kidney failure while serving in Iraq. It was fatal incompetence – or worse – that saw football star Pat Tillman shot to death by someone in his Ranger unit. Indeed, it was fatal incompetence that began The War on Terror that has left a swathe of death and destruction around the world. And now this. Our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, uncles and aunts who came home from war in one piece may be condemned to debilitating diseases courtesy of the very facilities meant to heal them.

Nashville lawyer Michael Sheppard represents dozens of affected veterans and said it was “hard to describe the upheaval and injury this has caused innocent veterans. Some no longer trust or have confidence in the VA medical facilities and feel betrayed, misled, and ill-informed.” Others, he suggests, may avoid colonoscopies for fear of HIV or other infections.

As we know, HIV can take up to six months to show up in tests. So far, no one is admitting how long -- or how come -- the VA has been using improperly sanitized endoscopic equipment. Or whether the non-sterile equipment was isolated to three Southeast hospitals or is part of a wider problem. This fatal incompetence surfaced back in February so there are still veterans out there who are only now learning they are infected. Who have they unwittingly infected in the meantime?

I’m almost afraid to ask my son if the medical tests he did recently in Tennessee were carried out in Murfreesboro.

According to U.S. Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs oversight and investigation subcommittee, “Somebody is going to have to take responsibility.”

No kidding. But who? And what is the likely outcome?

Taking responsibility for the incompetence at Walter Reed Army Medical Center saw Army Maj. Gen. George Weightman fired in 2007…only to be replaced by Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley who soldiers, their families, and veterans’ advocates complained already knew about WRAMC’s problems but did nothing to alleviate them.

Back then Defense Secretary Robert Gates vowed, “The care and welfare of our wounded men and women in uniform demand the highest standard of excellence and commitment that we can muster as a government. When …not met… I will insist on swift and direct corrective action and…accountability up the chain of command.”

Spokesman for the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, Dr. David A. Greenwald, said that although the VA patients tested positive, they could have had the viruses for years -- and before the VA treated them -- without showing symptoms. “Probably all of the infections that are being reported are infections people already had.”

In other words, blame the victims.

Lip service will be given to swift and direct corrective action up the old chain of command that, as we’ve seen repeatedly, goes nowhere after the first public slap on the wrist of the designated fall guy. Meanwhile, infected veterans, their families, friends, and casual acquaintances unwittingly exposed will join the ranks of about 0.6 percent of the world's population infected with HIV.

How could it be that honorable people like my son and the sons and daughters of other “military moms” enlisted to fight for their country end up as WHO and UNAIDS statistics? According to these organizations, AIDS has killed more than 25 million people since December 1, 1981. In 2005 alone, AIDS claimed around 2.4–3.3 million lives, half a million of whom were children.

My son is eagerly planning his own family. What will become of him, and all of us who love and respect him, if he encountered “human error” and improperly sanitized endoscopic equipment – and at the VA of all places?

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