The Tomah VA Medical Center.

The Tomah VA Medical Center. (VA)

WASHINGTON — Nearly 600 veterans learned this week that they could have hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV because a Department of Veterans Affairs dentist did not correctly disinfect his equipment over a one-year period, according to a VA statement.

The Tomah VA Medical Center in Wisconsin sent letters to 592 veterans Tuesday informing them of the possible infections, including the virus that causes AIDS. The VA is offering free screenings, and those who test positive will receive free VA treatment.

The VA said risk of infection was low, but it was contacting all veterans who might have been exposed “out of an abundance of caution.” As of Thursday, there was not a confirmed case of a veteran contracting an infection from the unsterilized equipment.

The dentist is no longer seeing patients and was reassigned to administrative duties. In a statement, the VA said actions were pending to “ensure that those responsible for this serious breach of patient trust are held accountable.”

“Failure to follow established infection control procedures is not acceptable, and we take the safety of our patients seriously,” Victoria Brahm, director of the Tomah VA hospital, said in a written statement. “We are deeply sorry for the concern this has caused veterans and their families.”

Veterans with questions should call 888-598-7793.

Last year, the Tomah VA came under fire for overprescribing opioids, with some dubbing the hospital “Candyland.” An inspector general’s report faulted the hospital for the accidental overdose death of a Marine Corps veteran.

“We have clear evidence that we are moving forward,” Brahm told reporters at a news conference earlier this week. “There are pockets where improvements still need to occur, I’ll be really honest.”

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., responded to the news Thursday afternoon by saying it was an egregious instance of “botched care.”

Miller is the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He helped to draft the $10 billion Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 in response to the VA wait-time scandal, and President-elect Donald Trump said during his campaign he was considering Miller for VA Secretary.

In a statement Thursday, Miller criticized the department for not holding its employees accountable.

He also plugged a bill he sponsored and pushed through the House earlier this year that would make it easier for the VA to discipline or fire poor-performing employees. The bill has not been taken up in the Senate. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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