Sceenshot courtesy of Google Maps

Miami VAMC criticized by House committee

Citing continued "failures in leadership", the chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee and his colleagues have unleashed a new series of criticisms - aimed at the Department of Veterans Affairs in general and its Miami VA Medical Center in particular.

In an Oct. 12 committee hearing, "Failures at Miami VAMC: Window to a National Problem", Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida and fellow representatives blamed VA leadership for past and present problems uncovered at the VA facility.

"Some of the issues ... are not new to this committee," said Miller in his opening statement. "The facility came into the spotlight in 2009 when it was discovered and reported that endoscopes were not reprocessed correctly, placing over 2,000 veterans at risk of exposure to disease. Nearly two years later, after the initial round of notifications, 12 additional veterans were identified as being at risk of exposure."

In citing this and a host of other errors at the Miami VAMC, Miller identified what he believes to be the root cause of the problems. "At the heart of this issue is leadership at VA at all levels and in all parts of the country," he said. "It is my belief that the failures in leadership and patient safety that were brought to light in 2009 are still occurring to this day. Multiple investigations have taken place, disciplinary recommendations put forth, new processes and procedures developed, new policies established, yet the problems are not fixed."

Miller opened the hearing to questions from other committee members. Appearing on behalf of the VA were William Schoenhard, deputy under secretary of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), who was accompanied by Mary Berrocal, director of the Miami facility, and her supervisor, Nevin Weaver.

Shaun Rieley, who serves as assistant director of the Legion's Legislative Division and attended the hearing, said committee members peppered the witness panel with three hours of tough questions covering the sanitation problems, a lack of proper record-keeping that led to delays in notifying patients who had been placed at risk by contaminated medical equipment, budget issues - relating to a nearly $30-million deficit identified by the committee's ranking member, Rep. Bob Filner of California - a general lack of accountability and oversight, and statistical evidence contradicting the claims of improvement at the facility.

Other more specific incidents brought to light in the hearing included the case of Catawba Howard, an Air Force and Army veteran who was released from the Miami VAMC within hours of being admitted with mental-health problems, for which she had been committed to another area facility. Howard had reportedly told family members that she sought to commit "suicide by cop." After her release from the VA hospital, she was shot to death after killing a police officer.

Another accusation of administrative laxity concerned the case of a Miami VAMC employee arrested recently and charged with selling the names and personal information of 18 patients at the center, while possibly compromising the confidential records of as many as 3,000 veterans. Yet, according to committee members, none of the possibly affected veterans have been notified of the incident.

Throughout the session, Schoenhard defended the facility, contending that the Miami VAMC has made steady improvement in its operations and administration. "VA has ... a culture of continuous improvement," he said, "which is manifested in every one of the more than 1,400 sites of care in the VA health-care system. This is especially true of the Miami VAMC."

Miller concluded the hearing with a promise that the committee will continue its scrutiny of the Miami VAMC and conduct follow-up research on its operations.