VA Negligence Suits Likely After Botched Colonoscopies

<"">Botched medical procedures at veterans hospitals have left some with dangerous, deadly diseases, such as HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C and others fearing for their health as they await test results.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was roundly criticized at a hearing before a House VA committee for not increasing safeguards and improving procedures at VA health facilities after shoddy colonoscopies and endoscopies were potentially linked to the spread of the pathogens. According to an Associated Press (AP) report last month, an attorney was planning on asking the U.S. Department of VA to pay disability benefits and damages for these mistakes.

Now, 55-year-old Army veteran, Juan Rivera, alleges that due to improper sterilization procedures at the VA hospital where he underwent a routine colonoscopy in 2008, he has been infected with HIV, reported the Washington Post. “The VA has issued me a death sentence,” Rivera said, according to his attorney, quoted the Washington Post.

We recently wrote that despite a nationwide scare, media attention, and suspected links to HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C, less than half of all VA facilities were operating under appropriate procedures based on surprise investigations spurred by the scandal, which broke months earlier, citing a prior AP report.

HIV and hepatitis B and C are spread by contact with infected body fluids, especially blood. HIV—the human immunodeficiency virus—is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome); AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection. Hepatitis B and C are liver diseases that can lead to cirrhosis or cancer of the liver. Vaccines exist only for hepatitis B. HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C can all be fatal.

The shoddy endoscopies and colonoscopies were conducted as far back as five years ago and put VA patients at risk because they were treated with improperly sterilized equipment, thus exposing them to the bodily fluids of other patients, noted the AP previously. The VA acknowledged in the thousands of warning letters it sent to former patients that the invasive procedures potentially exposed them to other patients’ bodily fluids. Also, the VA admitted in late March that water tubes and reservoirs it used in colonoscopies and endoscopies were rinsed—not disinfected—between procedures, which could expose subsequent patients to contamination.

As of earlier this month, eight patients have tested positive for HIV, 12 for hepatitis B, and 37 to hepatitis C, said the Washington Post, citing the VA.

According to the Washington Post, this is just the beginning of an expected “rush” of lawsuits against the VA. One attorney told the Washington Post he plans on filing claims for about one dozen veterans who tested positive for hepatitis B or C and another 50-to-60 for veterans and their families in which emotional distress is cited.

The VA has admitted to the mistakes, which, it said, were caused by human error, reported the AP earlier, but says it is unable to prove if the infections are directly linked to VA procedures. The VA said the errors were isolated to three of its hospitals: Murfreesboro, Tennessee; Miami, Florida; and Augusta, Georgia, according to the AP. But, the AP recently reported that other VA patients were not warned about similar mistakes with the same equipment at more than 12 other VA centers.

“Facilities have not complied with management directives to ensure compliance with reprocessing of endoscopes, resulting in a risk of infectious disease to veterans,” according to the nationwide review, quoted the Washington Post. “The failure of medical facilities to comply on such a large scale with repeated alerts and directives suggests fundamental defects in organizational structure.”

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