Authorities say there’s a “very small risk” for the hundreds of Buffalo VA Medical Center patients who may have been exposed to HIV or hepatitis through the inadvertent reuse of insulin pens over a two-year period.
Don’t try telling that to the wife of one of those patients, a Marine Corps veteran from the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Amherst couple learned about the risk by reading the story in Saturday’s Buffalo News.
“I was horrified,” said the woman, who agreed to talk as long as she was not identified. “I started crying, figuring what could be wrong with my husband. I trusted the VA. He trusted the VA. To find out they weren’t labeling the insulin pens, and they were sharing them – it’s horrifying.”
The VA has told lawmakers that 716 patients at the facility may have been exposed to HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C, through the reuse of insulin pens that were intended to be used only once. The possible reuse occurred over a two-year period, between Oct. 19, 2010, and Nov. 1. Officials also have said that 570 of the patients are still alive.
The wife of the Marine veteran said it was shocking that this could happen at a place where she and her husband have received such great care, and she called it a “kick in the teeth” that they were not notified before the news went public.
“We should have been the first people to find out, not the lawmakers,” she said. “This is a private, medical issue.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Chris Collins suggested Saturday that the VA conduct a top-to-bottom “best practices” review of all its medical procedures, following this weekend’s news. He also is concerned that these insulin pens were introduced more than two years ago, without a proper protocol in place.
The new Republican congressman from Clarence said he would guess that other area hospital systems – Erie County Medical Center, the Catholic Health System and Kaleida – probably would have proper protocols for such devices.
“I think it would be appropriate to do a compare-and-contrast with other hospital systems, to make sure there’s not another gap that they were not aware of,” Collins added. “If this occurred with the insulin pens, that’s clearly not the best practices.”
That “best practices” model, borrowed from the corporate world, involves a comparison of any company’s services or products with the best practices employed by other businesses. Collins, as he has for years, suggested that government adopt such tried-and-true business models.
Too often, Collins said, government operates as if it’s on an island, or without looking outside its walls.
“This may be the perfect opportunity for the VA to look themselves in the mirror and say, ‘Let’s do a top-to-bottom review of all aspects of the hospital,’ ” Collins added.
Collins and others suggested that any veterans treated with the insulin pens be tested as soon as possible, to rule out the hepatitis or HIV risk.
“It is a low probability, but that’s easy for us to say, who aren’t affected,” the congressman said.
Patrick W. Welch, Erie County Veterans Affairs director from 2008 to 2010, has diabetes but does not get insulin shots. Still, he appreciates how the affected people must feel.
“First of all, I think they’re going to be very, very panicked,” he said. “They’re going to be very upset, and they should be scrambling to get back to the VA to be tested as quickly as possible.”
On Friday, VA officials said they planned to set up a nurse-staffed call center to field calls from concerned veterans, as well as sending letters to veterans who could have been infected. The VA provided no more details Saturday on those plans.
“Our notification process has begun to our stakeholders: local congressional reps and U.S. senators and county veteran service officers,” the VA said in part of a statement emailed Saturday by Evangeline Conley, the VA’s public affairs officer. “It will continue to veterans who may have been impacted. We will provide you updates as the process continues.”
Along with his concerns for those patients, Welch pointed to the effect this news could have on any veterans apprehensive about going to the local VA, a facility that he now considers one of the best in the country.
“I would look at this as probably an isolated incident,” he said.
Welch, like other local veterans activists, did not always feel that way about the local facility.
“I can tell you that in the 1960s, it was a rat hole,” he said. “I wouldn’t send my worst enemy there in the ’60s.”
Welch cites the old Clint Eastwood movie, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” in referring to the local VA center. It was ugly in the 1960s and early ’70s, bad in the late ’70s and ’80s and good at the beginning of the 21st century.
But Welch fears what this weekend’s news could mean for still-reluctant veterans needing medical help.
“For a lot of older veterans who for many years may have been apprehensive about going to the VA, ... this probably will be something that will scare them away,” he said.
Welch fears some of them may say, “See, this is the old VA. I’m not going to bother with them.”
Jack Michel, 64, a Marine Corps veteran from Snyder who also served in Vietnam, has had six major surgeries at the local VA, including knee and hip replacements, heart and cancer surgery. He’s also received extensive counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I think they’re tremendous,” Michel said of the facility and its staff. “They’ve helped me in virtually every phase of my life.”
Michel echoed Welch’s sentiments about the old VA hospital. After returning from Vietnam, he stopped going to the facility in 1973.
“I walked out and said, ‘I could go anywhere and be treated like dirt,’ ” he said.
But then he returned in 2000, to find a much-improved facility.
So how did Michel react to this weekend’s news?
“It surprises me that anyone with the VA would think of reusing anything that hasn’t been sterilized,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that shouldn’t happen anywhere, in any facility.”