VA patients get letter of warning
By Jesse Bogan > St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS • The Department of Veterans Affairs is warning hundreds of veterans that they may have been exposed to viruses from dental work performed at the St. Louis VA Medical Center.
The federal agency said it was mailing letters to 1,812 veterans treated during a 13-month period ending in March at the clinic at its John Cochran hospital. The letters say the risk of infection is low but offer free blood testing to screen for the hepatitis B virus, the hepatitis C virus and for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection.
The VA letter said that dental equipment "may not have been cleaned correctly."
"We deeply regret that this situation occurred and we assure you that we are taking all the necessary steps to make certain that testing is offered quickly and results communicated timely," the letter reads.
The letter adds, "We want you to know that the staff at the St. Louis VA Medical Center is doing everything possible to address this situation and prevent it from occurring again."
VA spokeswoman Laurie Tranter said Tuesday night that the problem was uncovered during an inspection that took place March 9-12. Dental services were suspended on March 11 and resumed on March 26. She said the problem was related to "proper processing of dental equipment."
A statement released by the federal agency said that an internal VA Clinical Risk Assessment Advisory Board had determined that the risk of infection was "extremely low" but had nonetheless decided to contact veterans and offer testing.
As to why it took more than three months for veterans to be told that they might have been exposed to HIV and hepatitis viruses, Marcena Gunter, spokeswoman for the VA in St. Louis, said the agency needed time to figure out the risk level from the potential exposure.
"We are very conservative in our actions," Gunter said.
Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, said Tuesday night that he had requested that the federal agency conduct a formal investigation. In a letter Tuesday to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Carnahan called the potential exposure an "indefensible breach of standard operating procedure."