- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Veterans Affairs Department committed grave safety mistakes at several of its medical centers and delayed other needed educational and financial services to thousands of veterans, agency chief Eric Shinseki said Wednesday to a congressional panel.

“While this process is at times painful, it is the right thing to do for veterans and the nation and will ultimately result in greater trust and better quality,” said Mr. Shinseki about disclosing the problems at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Philadelphia.

Over a six-year period at the center nearly 100 brachytherapy procedures - used to treat prostate cancer by implanting radioactive seeds to destroy cancerous cells - were botched.

Additionally, VA personnel failed to properly clean endoscopic equipment at hospitals in Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, exposing 10,000 veterans to possible infections. The VA has reported that six veterans taking follow-up blood checks tested positive for HIV, 34 tested positive for hepatitis C, and 13 tested positive for hepatitis B.

The VA most recently apologized to nearly 2,000 veterans who erroneously received letters for patients diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“I am proud of our people and our accomplishments, but there have been challenges, missed opportunities and gaps in providing the quality of care and services veterans expect and deserve,” Mr. Shinseki said.

The agency has seen some recent success for the 8 million veterans who are enrolled for health care, including the expansion of its system to more than 1,000 outpatient clinics and mobile clinics.

Testifying before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on the state of his agency, Mr. Shinseki cited other setbacks the agency has suffered recently, including a hold-up in educational funding for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Across the nation, veterans who applied for benefits under the GI Bill have been told their payments are being delayed because of an overwhelming number of problems at both the department and the schools,” said Rep. Bob Filner, California Democrat and committee chairman.

Rep. Steve Buyer, Indiana Republican and ranking committee member, said the backlog of education benefits as well as disability claims continues to accelerate.

“The challenges you have stepped into are almost a runaway train, so how do you stop that train?”

Mr. Shinseki said the VA will conduct an “emergency exercise” so it can “enter the spring semester with no backlog” of educational GI Bill funds.

As for the backlog on disability payments, the VA closed 92,000 claims in July, as another 91,000 claims poured in for processing, Mr. Shinseki said.

Mr. Shinseki said veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will get the care they deserve, but he did not address a new rule under consideration by his agency that would change the evidence required to prove that a veteran suffers from the malady.

“If a stressor is related to the veteran’s fear of hostile military or terrorist activity and a VA psychiatrist or psychologist confirms that the claimed stressor is adequate to support a diagnosis of PTSD,” veterans would be eligible for medical treatment.

However, Rep. John Hall, New York Democrat and chairman of the Veterans subcommittee on disability assistance and memorial affairs, led a separate roundtable with veterans’ organizations who questioned whether diagnosis should be limited to VA doctors and what factors are the cause or trigger of PTSD.

“When we send troops into combat zones, every moment of every day is not documented,” Mr. Hall said. “So when the veteran files a claim for PTSD, the stressors are not always easy to verify, which has resulted in too many of our combat veterans being denied an earned benefit.”

Added Mr. Filner: “America owes its combat veterans a debt of gratitude, not loopholes and hurdles.”

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

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