An Army medical center in Texas. Matt Slocum/AP
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The Veterans Affairs medical centers are in hot water again. A Government Accountability Office report reveals systemic deficiencies in sanitation and sterilization procedures at medical centers across the country, jeopardizing the health and safety of millions of veterans who rely on the VA for health care.

Many medical centers have failed to develop training programs to teach staff how to correctly clean, disinfect and sterilize reusable medical equipment, like surgical equipment. As a result, staff may not be sterilizing reusable equipment correctly, creating a serious medical risk.

A year after the VA required medical centers to develop this training, three of the six centers checked by the GAO had still not developed the training.

Officials at one medical center said they had not developed the required sanitation training for items like surgical instruments because they did not understand that they were required to do so.

The effects of these safety inadequacies have been seen across the country. In 2010, a Missouri news station reported that about 1,800 veterans were potentially exposed to hepatitis and HIV at the St. Louis VA medical center when workers washed dental equipment by hand instead of sending it to a hospital to be sanitized and sterilized.

GAO also found weaknesses in VA’s oversight of purchasing requirements at the medical centers. The staff at one medical center ordered the wrong piece for a dialysis machine, which caused blood to pass into the machine incorrectly, and potentially exposed 83 patients to infectious diseases, like HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. GAO identified purchasing problems all six of the medical centers it visited.

“Until these weaknesses are addressed, the safety of veterans receiving care at VA medical centers could potentially be at risk,” the GAO report said.

FAST FACT: Department of Veterans Affairs operates one of the largest health care systems in the country, with 153 VA medical centers treating 5.5 million veterans a year.

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