St. Louis VA surgeries and dental still being canceled

Post date: May 5, 2011 3:33:26 PM

10:58 PM, May 4, 2011 Courtesy of KSDK By Leisa Zigman, I-Team Reporter

St. Louis, MO (KSDK) - Some veterans in the St. Louis region are still having surgery and dental procedures canceled or postponed two months after the all clear was given at the St. Louis VA Medical Center.

Officials suspended all procedures on February 2, 2011 after an employee found a surgical tray pitted with corrosion. Multiple investigations took place and more than 200 surgeries scheduled at the facility were instead performed at other St. Louis hospitals at tax payer's expense.

The center reopened March 10, more than a month after closure. VA experts, along with private vendors and independent consultants, examined the sterilization processing department and determined it was safe to start surgeries again. But veterans are still having surgeries and dental procedures postponed.

The hold up, according to VA officials, has to do with the decision to replace or restore 63,000 dental and surgical instruments.

"We have a patient safety culture here. We wanted to make sure when the instruments come out that we felt comfortable using them on patients," said Dr. Michael Crittenden, Chief of Surgery.

He explained the enormity and complexity of the restoration process takes time. But veterans tell the I-Team, all of that time is taking a toll on services they've earned.

The surgery center is operating only at 70 percent while the dental clinic hasn't done any restorative work like fillings or crowns in four months. Routine dental cleanings are taking place at 60 percent of what it was prior to the February closure.

One patient, who feared speaking on camera, said she had three appointments canceled since February and worries about losing some of her teeth.

"It just makes my blood boil that any veteran would be put in that situation but also, these are lingering problems from what has happened months and months and months ago," said Congressman Russ Carnahan, who spearheaded a campaign for investigations and congressional hearings.

National Dental Labs contacted by the I-Team, say restoring dental instruments should take three days. So why after eight weeks are surgeries and dental procedures still being canceled?

Aesculap, a German company, is restoring the VA's instruments at its Hazelwood facility. A company vice president told the I-Team, "We have been working with St. Louis VA since mid-February...we don't control what we receive and when...but it's typically a three day turn around."

VA officials insist it is not a procurement or bureaucratic red tape problem. Dr. Crittenden said turnaround is taking longer than three days but he is very pleased with the quality of work Aesculap has provided.

He said if a patient has a dental emergency, the VA will pay for an outside dentist. Dr. Crittenden said they've paid for outside services more than 100 times since the February closure.

Officials at the VA hope to be back to 100 percent capacity at both the surgical and dental centers sometime in the next two weeks.

The sterilization concern was the second in less than a year at the Cochran center. In 2010, faulty sterilization at the center's dental clinic raised concerns that 1,812 veterans were potentially exposed to hepatitis and HIV. Most of those veterans have been tested and no cases of HIV or hepatitis have been connected to the dental clinic.

A Congressional hearing titled "Sacred Obligation: Restoring Veteran Trust and Patient Safety," is now taking place in Washington, D.C.