592 veterans treated by a VA dentist in Wisconsin have been notified that they should get tested for blood diseases because the dentist mishandled equipment while treating them.
The impacted veterans are being advised to get tested for Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV. Victoria Brahm, the acting medical director of the Tomah, Wisconsin VA office, noted that the risk of infection from this particular malpractice is small. Such a statement, however, misses the point. The risk should be zero, as it would be if the dentist had followed protocol. Brahm also noted that while the VA investigation is ongoing, the results will be reported to the state licensing board, as well as to national dental authorities.
The VA requires dentists to use agency-provided equipment that is disposable and, most importantly, sterile. This is done to prevent the spread of disease. The dentist was instead using his own equipment, which he then cleaned and reused on other patients.
“During all of the orientation, he used our equipment. He used it appropriately, so it was very purposeful from what we found in our investigation that he knew exactly what he was doing, and preferred to use his own equipment against procedure,” Brahm said. The dentist’s disregard of established safety procedure was done knowingly and intentionally.
The VA only learned about this when a substitute dental assistant (who was filling in for a regular employee at the dentist’s office location) reported the misconduct to authorities.
The dentist had been doing this from October 2015 to October 2016. Over the course of a year, no whistleblowers came forward.
The dentist was not fired. Instead, he was reassigned to an administrative job and was still collecting a salary from taxpayers until Friday, December 2nd when he resigned from the VA. That Friday was the last business day before the dentist was scheduled to appear in front of a VA review board.
This display of medical malpractice has increased concern among lawmakers, who believe that the culture in the VA allows incidents like this one to go unchecked. And the result leaves veterans vulnerable. Wisconsin native and House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “This news is not just heartbreaking, it’s outrageous.”
No criminal charges have yet been brought against the dentist, nor has he been publicly identified.
This is a symptom of a greater problem at the VA: it is all but impossible to fire an underperforming (or outright harmful and dangerous) employee. On average, the dismissal process takes over a year. Legislation passed in the House of Representatives would limit the dismissal timeline to 77 days – still a whopping 11 weeks – but the bill stalled and has not yet passed the Senate. Even if it did, the VA might not enforce it. According to the Military Times, “Earlier this year,…VA leaders announced they would no longer enforce accountability laws passed by Congress two years ago because of Department of Justice concerns over their constitutional viability.”
The nation is waiting to find out who President-elect Donald Trump will nominate to lead the scandal-ridden department and drain the swamp.