Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. / Mark Wilson, Getty Images
WASHINGTON -- Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who served in World War II and has a Veterans Affairs facility in Detroit named after him, is calling for an "expeditious" response to a whistle-blower's claims that surgical equipment at a VA center in Ann Arbor is not being properly sterilized.
Dingell sent a letter Thursday to the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates whistle-blower claims, asking whether the complaints raised about the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System have been substantiated and, if so, to provide him detailed information about the findings.
"These allegations are very troubling and they raise many questions about the quality of care our veterans are receiving at this facility," said Dingell, whose district includes the Ann Arbor VA hospital. Because of the "urgent nature" of the claims, he asked for a response by next Thursday.
Dingell's letter is an indication of the widening scope of concerns swirling around problems at the VA. A recent internal audit, looking into long wait times and improper scheduling, flagged 112 centers nationally for more scrutiny, including the Ann Arbor VA and clinics in Lansing and Muskegon.
The VA has not explained why those Michigan sites were flagged for further review. But this week, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, in reporting to the White House and Congress on whistle-blower complaints about a VA facility in Mississippi, referenced ongoing concerns at the Ann Arbor center.
She said that the VA's Office of the Medical Inspector (OMI) had "partially substantiated" a whistle-blower's complaints that employees at Ann Arbor were "practicing unsafe and unsanitary work practices and that untrained employees were improperly handling surgical instruments and supplies."
Recommendations, she said, had been made for improvements.
But the whistle-blower - whose name has not yet been made public - told her office it was unclear whether the recommendations had made any difference. And Lerner said OMI didn't address the ongoing concerns in a supplemental report.
Asked about the whistle-blower claims this week, officials at the Ann Arbor facility failed to directly address it in comments to the Free Press, with Director Robert P. McDivitt saying only that "we take any allegation regarding the safety of our patients very seriously."
The Free Press learned this week that the investigation into the complaint at Ann Arbor is still open, though it could be closed soon.
It is one of two open cases the Office of Special Counsel has involving the VA in Michigan - though no details about the other case were available.
The office also is looking into a complaint alleging a VA whistle-blower faced reprisal for passing along information to investigators.
The additional scrutiny for the Ann Arbor VA facility comes at a crucial time for the agency in the wake of reports that veterans faced long wait-times for appointments - and allegations that some may have died waiting for care - while administrators used tactics to hide delays on their books.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in May amid the scandal, and this week it was reported that two senior VA officials would be leaving as the acting secretary installs personnel "to spearhead the department's immediate efforts to accelerate veterans' access to care."
In his letter, Dingell asked Lerner for an estimate of when she believes the Ann Arbor report will be done, and for any additional information on initial findings passed on to officials at the VA center there.
Dingell called the situation "serious," adding, "The public must have complete and accurate information about the condition of all facilities that care for our veterans."
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