Opening Statement of Hon. Michael R. Turner, a Representative in Congress from the State of Ohio
Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Filner, I would like to thank you for your leadership on this issue. Your responsiveness to my request to visit the facility in Dayton and decisiveness in holding this vitally important hearing are a testament to your dedication to our nation’s veterans.
Along with the many other tragic issues addressed in today’s hearing, the events that transpired at the Dayton VA Dental Clinic are extremely disconcerting because they further illustrate systemic problems in the medical system that provides care for our nation’s veterans. The dentist in question violated infection control standards for nearly two decades. During a significant period of this time he did so with the knowledge of many fellow employees and some supervisors. In failing to report these problems the clinic needlessly put thousands of veteran lives at risk. Several patients have tested positive with hepatitis, and I, along with a panel of health care professionals, believe that many more are at risk and should be notified and tested.
Last week, I participated in a field hearing with Senator Brown under the jurisdiction of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on this same issue. As I discussed there, it is important for the community to become involved in this process because they were the victims and their input will be vital in reestablishing the communities’ trust. In an effort to ensure the safety of all the identified victims and potentially unidentified victims, the Greater Dayton Area Hospital Association (GDAHA) has reached out to the VA to help in this process. GDAHA is empanelled by a group of local physicians and has the community interests in mind.
During the course of their investigation GDAHA recently published an interim report in which they disagreed with the VA’s decision to limit the look-back period to 1992. Instead the group concluded that the VA should notify and test all patients seen by the DIQ, to include the next-of-kin of deceased patients. Their independent conclusions were made with a view towards the best interest of the patients and community and were free from the influence of VA leadership. I have submitted this information to Secretary Shinseki and requested that he adhere to their recommendations. I hope that he will choose to enact these recommendations in order to protect those that may have been exposed and help restore the communities’ faith in the VA.
While I appreciate the investigations that have been conducted by the VA, I would like to point out that internal constraints placed on the OIG investigative team bring the findings of their investigation into question. I am concerned that the scope of the OIG investigation was limited by an inability to interview key witnesses. As the report itself states, the OIG investigative body was unable to interview several key witnesses simply due to their retirement. These witnesses included the original SOARS complainants, a fellow dentist and the facility’s Chief of Staff. Their exclusion from the evidence gathering process devalues the OIG’s findings significantly and raises a very serious question.
Simply stated: What kind of system does the VA have in place where the leadership can evade investigative processes simply by opting into retirement? The ultimate consequence of this model is that Veterans and their families carry the scars and the tax payers carry the debt while the responsible individuals walk away into comfortable retirement without accounting for their negligence.
This system is broke and it needs to be fixed. The VA and Congress share a responsibility to provide the greatest amount of protection for all the potentially affected veterans and their families. In light of this, I concur with GDAHA’s recommendations that the VA should notify and test all patients seen by the DIQ, to include the next-of-kin of deceased patients. I also take issue with the underlying rationale to limit the scope of the testing.
In moving forward, I hope that the VA will make a greater effort to work with Congress and the community to ensure that all potentially affected victims are notified and tested. Further, I would like the VA to work in concert with regional stakeholders to identify the underlying problems that allowed this tragedy to happen, and devise a solution that will prevent it from ever happening again. In order to accomplish this, the VA should conduct an open and transparent process that includes information sharing with GDAHA and the community.
After all, our country has thousands of young men and women that are making as great of a sacrifice as any generation before them. We need to make sure that they have the peace of mind to know that if they need help when they are done, there will be a fully functioning and competent VA here to give them that help when they need it. Further, we need to ensure that a system is in place that holds the leadership accountable for their actions and does not allow them to simply walk away at the first sign of trouble. This leadership from the rear mentality has no place in the Department of Veterans Affairs and is particularly shameful in an environment built to care for those veterans that kept our country safe and free.