VA: Faulty dental sterilization in St. Louis

By Heartland News

ST. LOUIS, MO (KFVS) - The Department of Veterans Affairs has notified nearly 2,000 veterans that they could have been exposed to viral infections like Hepatitis C and HIV because dental equipment at the VA medical center in St. Louis was inadequately sterilized.

Letters were sent Monday to 1,812 veterans who had dental procedures performed at the John Cochran Dental Clinic from Feb. 1, 2009, through March 11 of this year.

Associate Chief of Staff, Dr. Gina Michael says some dental instruments were not cleaned properly.

"The dental assistants, to be honest, wanted to take particular care with them to make sure they didn't get damaged, so they were actually doing additional work to protect their delicate instruments. Sometimes policies don't always get followed because people have good intentions. But the end result is that the policy that was to be followed wasn't followed," said Michael.

VA officials say that while they believe the health risk is "extremely low," those who had procedures are being offered free screenings for infections.

Officials say the sterilization problem was determined during quality reviews.

Rep. Russ Carnahan, a St. Louis Democrat, is asking the VA to conduct a formal investigation.

The VA discovered this lapse in March but did not notify veterans or Congress until June, according to Congressman Todd Akin.

Congressman Todd Akin, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, sent this letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, about the lapse in cleaning equipment at St. Louis VA Medical Center.

Akin also released this statement.

"I cannot believe that the Veterans Administration has failed our St. Louis veterans in such a dramatic and disturbing manner.  After putting their lives on the line for our country, veterans deserve the best possible health care.  Instead, the VA has had a series of patient safety lapses across the country, now including St. Louis.  The fact that 1,800 veterans could have been exposed to Hepatitis or HIV over the course of a year is shocking.  Those responsible should be disciplined or dismissed.  We must also ensure that this is not occurring in other areas of the facility.  Secretary Shinseki must ensure that something like this never happens again, and that affected veterans are fully cared for."

U.S. Representative Jo Ann Emerson also demanded for an investigation saying sending a letter to veterans is not enough.

Emerson released this statement about the hospital.

"Americans who risked their lives for our country deserve better than this," Emerson said. "There is a basic level of diligence the VA ought to observe in doing their duty to our veterans and their family members. They need to remember that these men and women are also our fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives. Clearly, that message did not sink in at this facility – it's inexcusable."

Heartland veterans were shocked to hear the news about the St. Louis VA hospital.  Jerome Schnurbusch says he is not surprised because he was not happy with the treatment he received when there.  Schnurbusch and fellow veteran Charles Schultz say they feel awful for the veterans affected and hope higher standards will be implemented throughout all of the VA hospitals.

This makes one wonder, how does something like this happen?  Dental Assistant Margie Renner says at her office sterilization is always top of mind because the treat every patient as if they could be a carrier of a disease.  She says the sterilization process can be lengthy, sometimes lasting longer than the appointment, but says employees in her office never cut corners.

"Even if you don't think they have anything you should still use the same procedures to sterilize your equipment and to wrap everything up as much as you can to have that barrier," said Renner.

She says with the procedure at her office it is hard to imagine the mishap in St. Louis.  She also says if any employees think they might have been exposed to a disease they actually have test right there in the office to ensure spreading doesn't occur.

Copyright 2010 KFVS. All rights reserved.  The Associated Press contributed to this report.