Veterans who have confronted hardship, injury and death while serving in the nation's military shouldn't have to face similar worries when they seek and receive the medical care promised to them by the federal government in return for their service. Far too often, it is apparent, they do when they turn to VA hospitals for care in five states - including Tennessee.
About 13,000 veterans have been warned by the Veterans Administration in the last couple of years that they should have blood tests for potentially lethal infections. The warnings initially were prompted by what was determined to be improper hygiene practices in VA hospitals in Tennessee, Georgia, Ohio, Florida and Missouri. In 2009, about 10,000 vets treated at VA facilities in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Augusta, Ga., and Miami, Fla., were told they could have been exposed to infections during routine colonoscopies or endoscopies because of poorly cleaned equipment. The outrage that followed was understandable - and ultimately useful. It prompted positive change.
Over the last two years, the VA system - which now serves about 6 million vets at more than 1,000 medical facilities - has emphasized hygiene education. Documented improvement in reducing infections among patients is the result. Still, there is room for improvement.
Recently, some veterans treated by a dentist at a VA dental facility in Ohio were warned that they could have been infected during procedures there. The dentist, the VA reported, routinely failed to properly sterilize equipment or to change gloves regularly. Failure to do so could potentially expose patients to HIV, hepatitis or other blood-borne diseases. Most of the subsequent tests on clinic patients proved negative. That's not always the case.
The VA reports that tests on about 12,000 patients believed exposed to life-threatening infections in the last two years have confirmed eight HIV-positive cases and at least 61 confirmed cases of hepatitis B or C. Those numbers might be misleading. Some vets receive treatment at places in addition to VA facilities, so it is not always possible to confirm the origin of the infections.
Indeed, infections that arise from medical and dental care in hospital and clinic settings across the nation are a growing problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that health care related infections affect about 1.7 million individuals yearly at a cost of about $34 billion. Nearly 100,000 die. The problem is not unique to the VA system.
The VA, because of its nature, is probably far more transparent than many, if not most, health-care providers. The agency's admission of the problem and its on-going effort to address it is admirable. The latter has produced tangible results.
One recent study, for example, showed that VA hospitals reduced antibiotic-resistant staph infections by 60 percent in its intensive care units in recent years. Other gains in infection control have been reported, as well.
That, however, doesn't solve the problem; it does help ameliorate it. The VA must continue to expand its effort to fulfill the nation's promise that it would provide safe and adequate health care to veterans. The government must continue to work diligently to ensure its delivery.