Patients at risk?: GAO investigates VA

Monday - 9/27/2010, 9:31am EDT

Debra Draper, Director, Health Care Team, GAO

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By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

Medical centers run by Veterans Affairs are expected to follow a certain set of rules when procuring expendable and reusable medical supplies so that equipment is easily tracked and maintained. But a recent GAO report found inconsistencies at VA medical centers.

Auditors say that resulted in unnecessary equipment purchases and put patients at risk of infectious diseases.

Dr. Debra Draper, a Director of GAO's Health Care Team, told Federal News Radio the problem isn't just that policy isn't being followed: sometimes the policy is the problem.

"The issue that we found that is in some cases the policies," said Draper, "are either ambiguous or they're inconsistent and we've actually found policies that are contradictory. In some cases there are gaps in the policy that really has contributed to, or potentially contributed to some of the patient safety incidents."

By visiting five VA medical centers, Draper said the GAO was able to get a range of service covering different veterans groups, but that the findings are "not generalizable to the broader VA system as a whole."

Even so, the VA is "looking at making changes to some of their oversight and some of their purchasing and tracking policies."

For example, said Draper, VA is developing a new inventory management system "that officials hope will help improve their ability to track information about expendable medical supplies and reusable medical equipment across the VA medical centers."

At the heart of the issue is, particularly for patient safety, that without proper inventory systems, when there's a recall there's no way to tell if the item is even in their facility, said Draper. "It might mean a more laborious process of going and checking drawers and relying on staff recall to determine whether they have actually had the item. So it's just not a very systematic process."

According the GAO, VA expects the new inventory management system to be operational in March 2011. Asked about a sense of urgency to make the changes, Draper said "anytime you have veterans safety at risk, it's a high priority, and VA officials have told us it is that it is a high priority for them as well."