- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

MIAMI (AP) | The Department of Veterans Affairs must do better job of finding and testing veterans who may have been exposed to contaminated medical equipment at the Miami VA hospital, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Thursday.

The Florida Republican spoke to the Associated Press after a briefing by VA officials in Washington that she requested for members of Congress and their staff.

More than 10,400 former patients have been getting follow-up blood tests because of VA mistakes with equipment used in colonoscopies at Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Miami, and at the agency’s Augusta, Ga., ear, nose and throat clinic.

The VA has said that five former patients at the three hospitals had tested positive for HIV, three of them are in Miami. A total of 34 have tested positive for hepatitis.

It’s not clear whether the infections came from VA treatment. But according to a 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of new HIV infections in 2006, the general infection rate was 22.8 per 100,000 population that year, a figure that would produce about 2.3 cases in a random group of 10,400 people.

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said the number of people of potentially affected in Miami has decreased from 3,348 to 2,609. The number went down because some patients scheduled for a colonoscopy may not have shown up for appointments or were not given an examination. Out of that risk pool, all but 332 have been notified, VA officials said at the briefing.

But Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said the number yet to be notified remains “too high.”

She said the VA has sent each person two letters and called multiple times, but they may have moved or changed telephone numbers. And she said the VA needs to try harder.

“We just can’t say, ‘Oh well we tried our best,’ ” Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said.

She added, “It’s shameful, and it sounds like a bad movie plot.”

VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts did not immediately comment on Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen’s statements, but said there was no new information given during the briefing.

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said the VA is reaching out to homeless shelters across the country to see whether they can find these veterans. She also said 66 people in Miami have declined testing.

“I encourage the VA Miami folks to be more aggressive in trying to encourage these veterans to be tested, for the veterans’ own health as well as the health of the community,” she said.

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said the problem was discovered Dec. 1 in Murfreesboro and the VA contacted other facilities about three weeks later, but it wasn’t until March 4 that the Miami hospital found a problem.

She said Congress must “make sure that this scandal will never unfold again because the veterans deserve the very best of care.”

A staff member from the office of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Florida Democrat, was also at the meeting.

“We are deeply concerned by the fact that this happened and the implications,” said spokesman Jonathan Beeton.

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