affairsdisputed a top official’s assertion


Congress Slams Miami VA Hospital at Hearing

Oct 12, 2011






Posted on Wed, Oct. 12, 2011


Congress slams Miami VA hospital at hearing

By Erika Bolstad


WASHINGTON The House committee that oversees veteran’s affairsdisputed a top official’s assertion Wednesday that the Miami Veterans Administration hospital “has continued to move in a positive direction.”

Instead, some on the committee suggested the hospital’s director, Mary Berrocal, should be dismissed, and said they expected more progress in the aftermath of revelations in 2009 that nearly 2,500 veterans might have been exposed to HIV and other illness during colonoscopies performed with improperly cleaned equipment.

“I am so saddened by what I have heard today, things that are going on at Miami VA medical Center that are atrocious,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Pensacola, the chairman of the committee. “I can only imagine how bad it must have been if you think it is moving in the right direction.”

But William Schoenhard, a deputy undersecretary with the VA, defended Berrocal’s leadership at the hearing, and said the VA believes it has in place “leadership that’s in the best interest of our veterans.”

“She’s turning this ship around,” he said. “It takes time to change the culture, it takes time to ensure that people are held accountable at the local level, that we are patient centered.”

A VA board concluded that Berrocal and her former chief of staff, Dr. John Vara, should be disciplined for “lack of oversight” that led to long delays in notifying 79 local veterans that they might have been infected with HIV or hepatitis through improperly performed colonoscopies at the hospital.

Officials said Wednesday that Berrocal had been “admonished,” a disciplinary action that stays in an employee’s record for two years. She remains at the hospital’s helm, however, although Vara has departed and is working at another facility.

The VA Administrative Investigative Board (AIB) in Washington completed its report on the issue in September 2010 but the VA only released the report last month in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Miami Herald in December.

About 11,000 veterans nationwide were told they might have been exposed to infection at three VA hospitals through colonoscopies performed with improperly cleaned equipment. In 2009, the Miami VA hospital notified more than 2,500 local veterans of the potential exposure. But it failed for more than a year to inform another 79 who were missed in the initial round of notification. And it wasn’t until nearly two years after the first notifications that 12 more veterans learned they, too, might have been infected.

Of the 2,500 Miami vets, blood tests showed five positive for HIV, eight for hepatitis C and one for hepatitis B. The VA has said there is no way to know whether the improperly cleaned equipment caused the infections, but it has promised free lifetime care for those infected.

Congress already has held hearings on the colonoscopies, and hospital officials have had plenty of time to work with the committee to make good on some of the initial findings, said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.

“This is a mess that has been getting messier,” she said. “I understand no one wants Congress looking over their shoulders, but this goes to the heart of what the VA is all about. Vets deserve the best. I feel we’ve let them down.”



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