WASHINGTON – The inspector general at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs should launch an independent investigation into the reuse of insulin pens at the Buffalo VA Medical Center, Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Brian Higgins said Tuesday.

Noting that the use of the insulin delivery devices could have exposed 716 patients at the hospital to HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C, Schumer and Higgins wrote separately to George J. Opfer, the VA inspector general, to request the probe.

“We must use all available resources to ensure that we find out what happened in this case and prevent any future incidents,” Schumer wrote. “Our veterans and heroes deserve this and more.”

Higgins agreed, saying: “We must evaluate the root causes of this unthinkable error, identify who is responsible for this systematic failure, better understand if it is an isolated incident or representative of widespread problems and ensure it never happens again.”

Schumer and Higgins asked the inspector general to determine how the reuse of the insulin pens happened, why the problem went undetected for two years and why it took the hospital more than two months to disclose the problem.

The VA told local members of Congress about the reuse of the insulin pens last Friday – even though the practice was discovered, and ended, last Nov. 1.

Schumer told Opfer that delay was a matter of grave concern.

“It is also unacceptable that it took the VA over two months to notify the potentially affected patients, the public, and our federal government officials,” Schumer wrote. The sooner veterans are tested for any virus or condition, he said, the sooner they can be monitored and treated.

The VA has said the risk of infection stemming from the used insulin pens is extremely small, and far smaller than it would have been if needles had been reused.

Still, Schumer and Higgins said a full investigation is in order, and that the VA needs to implement clear policies that will prevent such grave errors from recurring.

“The VA has a duty to ease the fears and health concerns of those who serve this nation, but this situation has done quite the opposite,” Higgins said in his letter to Opfer. “The people of Western New York, especially our veterans, deserve much better from their government.”