Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. David Shulkin, at a Senate hearing in February, 2017.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. David Shulkin, at a Senate hearing in February, 2017. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin promised Thursday quick fixes to the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center after a government watchdog uncovered risks to patient safety as a result of nearly 200 cases of the hospital running out of medical supplies.

The VA inspector general’s office released findings Wednesday unveiling ongoing inventory issues, including $150 million in unaccounted for medical supplies and equipment. Some supplies and storage facilities were found to be dirty, and inadequate supplies led to the delay or cancellation of some medical procedures.

In a news conference Thursday, Shulkin said he deployed a team of people to build a new inventory management system at the facility by Monday.

“I do believe that we have the ability to fix these issues,” Shulkin told reporters. “We will have an electronic inventory system in place here in Washington, like we do at most of our other medical centers, by Monday. We have a full team working right now to make sure that happens.”

In a rare move, Inspector General Michael Missal released an interim report Wednesday of an ongoing investigation that began only last month. In the report, Missal explained he had a “lack of confidence” in the VA to quickly address the problems.

Missal notified the VA about some of the issues March 30, he wrote, and VA officials responded by temporarily assigning other staff to the hospital and establishing an incident command center. The report described the response as “insufficient.”

The report went on to say that inventory issues have existed since at least 2014. Since January of that year, the hospital recorded 194 patient safety reports related to the unavailability of supplies.

The VA’s regional office was aware of “some supply issues” in March, Shulkin said. He said he did not know about risk to patient safety until the inspector general’s report was released Wednesday.

Shulkin on Wednesday relieved the Washington VA’s medical director from his duties. Thursday morning, officials announced retired Army Col. Lawrence Connell would temporarily take the position. Connell is a senior adviser in the agency.

The VA did not name the demoted medical director in its announcement, but the medical center’s website lists Brian Hawkins as holding the position since 2011.

“I instructed Connell to move out, to ensure patient safety and find ways to guide this medical center forward,” Shulkin said. “I wanted someone personally from my organization to be put in place with fresh eyes.”

Shulkin said: “The actions I took yesterday is how I believe an effective organization runs: decisive action when there’s risk involved.”

According to the inspector general’s report, some equipment was found to be expired, uninspected or improperly stored. In one instance in 2016, VA surgeons used expired equipment on a patient. The report stated the office had not yet determined whether veterans were harmed because of the issues.

Missal wrote his office would continue its review at the facility. Shulkin said the VA had also launched its own investigation.

“We are not aware of any veterans who have experienced harm, but we are going to continue to do a thorough investigation from the top to the bottom,” he said. “If there are veterans who have been harmed, we’re going to find out about that and hold people accountable for those decisions.” 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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