- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Veterans Affairs Department wasted more than $3 billion over 10 years on medical implant purchases — and is now losing track of those implants once they’ve been put into patients, potentially putting veterans’ health at risk, according to a new watchdog report that’s drawing attention from members of Congress.

“Spending taxpayer dollars wisely is essential, but providing the health care that veterans have earned and deserve is critical,” said Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs oversight subcommittee.

Investigators found the department’s Veterans Health Administration was often buying the implants on the open market, instead of using pre-existing federal contracts where lower prices had already been negotiated. Investigators said one official at a government hospital agreed to pay $6,000 for a device with no further review because similar items usually sold for “between $3,000 and $20,000.”

In May 2012, the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, calculated the VA had overpaid by $3 billion over the previous decade to purchase the implants. The watchdog agency told The Washington Times it hasn’t yet analyzed the amount of waste in 2013, but with an estimated $563 million going to the purchases in 2012 — 28 percent more than the last four years — there’s a lot of potential for abuse.

For wasting billions of dollars and potentially putting veterans’ health at risk, the Veterans Affairs Department wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a distinction from The Washington Times given out to mark examples of fiscal waste, fraud and abuse.

VA officials insist that fixes to the problems are underway.

SEE ALSO: Military groups protest handling of veterans affairs during shutdown

“The Veterans Health Administration has made significant changes in the last three years to the way we procure surgical implants and prosthetic appliances for veterans,” said Philip Matkovsky, the VA’s assistant deputy undersecretary for health. “These changes are intended to improve procurement performance and accountability while ensuring effective health care delivery for our veterans.”

But now Congress is getting involved, after the GAO revealed earlier this week that the VA has been losing track of the patients who receive implants, possibly putting veterans’ health at risk.

“It is troubling to consider that for these specialties, VHA was unable to verify that the items purchased were actually implanted in the patients for which they were intended,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, the Colorado Republican who chairs the oversight subcommittee, which held a hearing Wednesday to investigate the problems. “Proper tracking of surgical implants is a problem that has been unresolved for far too long and it must be remedied posthaste.”

Without information to find patients who have certain implants, the VA can do little in the event of a product recall or safety announcement, the GAO said, meaning some veterans could potentially be walking around with degrading or harmful medical devices inside their bodies.

Randall Williamson, the GAO’s director of health care, said the VA started a system in 2008 to track all the implants, but efforts to implement it are currently stalled because of technical challenges and a lack of funding.

The GAO investigators also said that VA officials have been too reliant on waivers that allow them to pursue purchases on the open market and ignore lower-priced avenues available from the government. The waivers are supposed to allow doctors to purchase specific items that aren’t available from government suppliers if it would be a better fit and greater help for a veteran.

But investigators said VA medical officials largely seemed to be ignoring long-established ways to buy items and instead routinely relied on the waivers. One hospital used waivers for 90 percent of the purchases investigators reviewed.

• Phillip Swarts can be reached at pswarts@washingtontimes.com.

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