January 5, 2015 — An investigative report by MSNBC has found that Veterans Affair (VA) hospitals quietly rejected most malpractice claims after exposing thousands of veterans to diseases like hepatitis from contaminated colonoscopy equipment.
In 2009, the VA notified about 6,400 veterans that they may have been exposed to life-threatening infections as a result of unclean endoscopes at the Alvin C. York Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Patients were “at risk” if they had a colonoscopy at the facility between April 23, 2003 and December 1, 2008.
The problem was tracked to a missing one-way valve designed to prevent back-flow of bodily fluids into the water tube. The water tube had not been disinfected or discarded, as the manufacturers instructions recommends.
In a broader investigation by the V.A. inspector general, 16 other facilities were found to be noncompliant with colonoscopy cleaning guidelines. Letters were sent to 3,260 veterans who had procedures at the Bruce W. Carter Medical Center in Miami, warning them they may have been infected.
Of the veterans who were exposed, 92 tested positive for infections like Hepatitis C, Hepatitis B, and HIV. Malpractice claims were filed by 76 veterans, including 21 who tested positive for infections.
Most of the malpractice claims were denied — including all of the lawsuits filed in Tennessee. In Florida, a federal court awarded $1 million to a veteran who developed Hepatitis C during a colonoscopy. Another case was settled for an undisclosed amount.
Outbreaks of infection are commonly linked to dirty endoscopes. They are used in highly-contaminated areas of the body, such as the intestines, during procedures like colonoscopies. After every use, they must be physically scrubbed with a properly-fitting brush and then soaked in a powerful disinfectant.