- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) official in charge of its health system announced his retirement Tuesday amid a cluster of media reports about the agency mishandling the medical care of the nation’s veterans.

Dr. Michael J. Kussman, who became undersecretary for health in 2007, says he will end his 37 years of government service May 9.

“I’ve appreciated the tremendous opportunity VA has given me to continue to serve those with whom I served while in uniform,” said Dr. Kussman, who attained the rank of brigadier general while in the Army.

“VA has a reputation for providing ‘the best care anywhere,’ and I hope I have helped to enhance that reputation,” Dr. Kussman said.

The Washington Times reported Tuesday that the VA is investigating whether its failure to sanitize hospital colonoscopy equipment is responsible for infecting one veteran with the HIV virus and 16 others with hepatitis.

More than 10,000 veterans are being urged to seek testing after being exposed to equipment that was not sterilized at VA hospitals in Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.

“The VA prides itself on being accountable, and we are extremely concerned about this matter, and as a result, we have initiated an investigation,” Dr. Kussman said. “Additionally, we are making sure to take corrective measures to ensure veterans have the information and the care necessary to deal with this unacceptable development.”

As undersecretary for health, Dr. Kussman oversees the delivery of care to more than 5.6 million veterans, and the system employs more than 230,000 health care professionals and support staff at 1,400 facilities. The annual budget is about $40 billion.

But even as the VA has worked to provide quality health care for the millions of veterans at its facilities across the country, it has endured a series of failures - from not notifying test subjects about new-drug warnings to ignoring safeguards during experiments - that have damaged its reputation.

Dr. Kussman came under fire in August after an inspector general’s investigation uncovered rampant violations in an Arkansas veterans hospital in its human experiments program, including missing consent forms, secret HIV testing and failure to report more than 100 deaths of subjects participating in studies.

The inspector general found that entire consent forms were missing, signatures were missing from consent forms, HIV testing was conducted without documented consent, and research officials failed to obtain witness signatures in a study involving patients with dementia.

In a joint investigation, The Times and ABC News first reported June 16 that the federal government is using thousands of military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for voluntary clinical trials. Several of the studies tested psychotropic drugs linked to suicidal behavior, including the drug Chantix.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama along with other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle called for an investigation into a smoking-cessation study, which the department immediately initiated and that resulted in significant changes in how veterans participating in drug experiments are notified when drug warnings are issued.

Also, the news Web site Nextgov.com reported that Dr. Kussman wrote a memo last month outlining the failure of a new patient-scheduling program that had been in the works since 2001, at a cost of $167 million.

Dr. Kussman said the program “still has not developed a single scheduling capability it can provide to the field, nor is there any expectation of delivery in the near future.”

In discussing how and when this information would become public, Dr. Kussman advised, “We need a clear communication plan for how we tell the story both inside and outside VA.”

• Audrey Hudson can be reached at ahudson@washingtontimes.com.

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