Even as Dorn OR closes again, congressmen see improvements at VA hospital

jholleman@thestate.comJanuary 6, 2014 

The Dorn VA Medical Center

TRACY GLANTZ — THE STATE

The Dorn VA Medical Center has fixed its deadly gastroenterology backlog, but the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said Monday he is concerned officials haven’t suffered serious consequences.

Meanwhile, the hospital announced that its operating room has been shut down for the third time in recent months due to a perplexing ventilation problem.

After meeting with Dorn officials Monday, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the operating room situation is being dealt with properly, unlike the extended backlog in gastroenterology consults. Those delays and how Dorn officials dealt with them have “put a black mark on this facility that has had years of providing good quality health care for the veterans.”

A report last year from the Office of Inspector General found that almost 4,000 Dorn patients recommended for gastroenterology tests were waiting to be examined at one point in 2012. The delays have been associated with at least 52 cancer cases and six deaths, and at least nine families have filed lawsuits about the delays, according to the report and later testimony before Miller’s committee.

“They have gone a long way in solving the backlog issue,” Miller said. “What is unconscionable, I think, to anybody is that it got to the point that it got to. ... And what’s amazing is that when they figured out that they had a problem and started focusing on it, it got worse. The numbers continued to grow.”

Eventually, the backlog was reduced by hiring more people and putting more resources on the problem, Dorn officials told Miller and fellow Republican U.S. Reps. Joe Wilson and Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina.

“I believe that they have more than rounded the curve,” Miller said. “Veterans should have faith in this facility, but that faith was broken in that particular incident because there was a problem, individuals knew that the problem existed, they waited too long before they were able to have that problem corrected.”

Miller has been frustrated in getting information from Dorn officials to help determine fault for the gastroenterology backlog. He blames upper management, specifically former Dorn director Rebecca Wiley, who has since retired. Before coming to Dorn, Wiley was director at the Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, which experienced similar problems.

“There has to be consequences when people make mistakes, and especially if it’s a repeated mistake that happens again and again,” said Miller, who hasn’t been able to get information on any repercussions suffered by Wiley. He plans a committee hearing to focus on the gastroenterology problems at Dorn and Norwood.

In the meantime, Miller came away from Monday’s meeting convinced the situation at Dorn has been resolved. “A new leader is here at this facility,” Miller said “I believe that they have the capability and certainly the desire to make sure that something like this never happens again.”

Since Wiley left her post at Dorn, there have been multiple interim directors, often on short-term assignment from other Southeastern VA hospitals. The congressmen arrived on the first day of interim director Maria Andrews, who came to Columbia from a VA facility in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Miller also has pressed for answers on what was done with $1 million allocated to Dorn to fix the gastroenterology backlog when it first was recognized. The inspector general’s report could document only about $200,000 of that being spent on the problem. Miller said Dorn officials insisted Monday the money had been spent appropriately, but they didn’t provide a full accounting.

“This visit has been on the books for several weeks, and we had asked for information months ago, and we finally got a portion of that information on Friday afternoon,” Miller said.

The current Dorn leadership declined to comment on the congressional visit. They did issue a statement on the operating room problems, saying the hospital shut down the operating room again Jan. 2 when more debris was discovered in what is supposed to be a sterile area. Problems with the air filtration system previously shut down the operating rooms Oct. 8 and Dec. 5. It’s been operational only five full days since early October.

The congressmen said they found no fault with Dorn for the operating room situation, which as they understand it has never happened before in other facilities and has perplexed air filtration experts. For now, surgeries are being rescheduled at other nearby VA facilities, at Moncrief Army Community Hospital at Fort Jackson or through special arrangements at local hospitals.

Both Wilson and Mulvaney believe Dorn can get back to doing its job well under solid leadership.

“We’ve given them the tools they need to succeed,” Mulvaney said. “I hope this management team is ready to do that.”

Wilson said the VA is in the process of hiring a full-time director for Dorn, and he is anxious for someone to fill that post.

“The medical staff here are highly respected professionals,” Wilson said. “I’m confident that with proper administration, the medical professionals can give the care that our veterans deserve.”

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