Hundreds of veterans who received dental treatment at a St. Louis VA hospital in recent months received an unsettling letter from hospital officials informing them they may have been exposed to life-threatening diseases, including HIV and hepatitis.
John Cochran VA Medical Center sent the letters to 1,812 veterans, telling them that the dental equipment “may not have been cleaned correctly,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. As a result, dental procedures could have put the veterans at risk of hepatitis A, hepatitis C, and HIV.
The letter advises veterans to visit a VA hospital for free blood testing to screen for the diseases. The St. Louis hospital also set up a special clinic and education center to treat patients who may have been infected.
A VA spokespesrson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that health authorities found the problem during a March 9-12 inspection. The hospital suspended dental services on March 11 and resumed them on March 26. The spokesperson said the problem stemmed from the improper “processing of dental equipment.”
Dr. Gina Michael, associate chief of staff at John Cochran, told Dt. Louis’ KDSK that some dental technicians broke protocol by handwashing dental equipment before putting it in the cleaning machines. The handwashing misstep started in February 2009 and continued until March 11, when the dental services were suspended, according to KDSK.
There was no word as to whether additional veterans who received treatments between February 2009 and February 2014 would be contacted. Letters were only sent to those who received treatment during a 13-month period ending in March 2015.
The hospital informed the veterans that the risk of infection is “extremely low,” but decided after board meetings about the risk level to inform the veterans.
Rep. Russ Carnahan leapt on the scandal, calling the hospital’s error “absolutely unacceptable.”
“No veteran who has served and risked their life for this great nation should have to worry about their personal safety when receiving much needed health care services from a Veterans Administration hospital. I can only imagine the horror and anger our veterans must be feeling after receiving this letter,” Rep. Carnahan said. “They have every right to be angry. So am I.”