Senators demand more answers from VA about doctor's hiring

Friday, October 12, 2007

CHICAGO -- Sens. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama say their own investigation raises serious questions about Veterans Affairs claims that officials couldn't have known about a surgeon's troubling history before he was hired at a Southern Illinois VA hospital.

In a harshly worded letter to acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Gordon Mansfield on Thursday, the Illinois Democrats said their staffs easily found enough information to warrant a closer look at the qualifications of Dr. Jose Veizaga-Mendez.

Veizaga-Mendez resigned from the Marion, Ill., VA hospital in August, shortly before the hospital suspended inpatient surgeries because of a spike in post-surgical deaths, reportedly from October 2006 to March of this year.

Durbin has said he was told that nine people died at the Marion hospital during an unspecified six-month period when the typical mortality rate would have been two. And, he's said that after hearing from Kussman, it is clear Veizaga-Mendez had some involvement with those surgeries.

Veizaga-Mendez was hired in Marion even though he was barred from practicing in Massachusetts last year after accusations of "grossly" substandard care.

"It appears the VA's efforts to discover the truth about Dr. Veizaga-Mendez, his past professional history, and the circumstances surrounding his license forfeiture were far from adequate and may have put the veterans seeking care at Marion in danger," the senators wrote.

In a written statement issued Thursday, the VA said it conducts a "thorough background check that includes verification of professional credentials, competence, personal backgrounds and checks them against the national Practitioner Data Bank-Healthcare Integrity and Protection Data Bank."

But Durbin and Obama said two VA undersecretaries, Dr. Michael Kussman and Dr. Gerald Cross, had said it was impossible for the VA to know whether Veizaga-Mendez had accurately described why he'd surrendered his license in Massachusetts.

"A cursory check by our staff of publicly-available information has cast doubt on the validity of that claim," they wrote.

Some of the information was readily available on the Web site of the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine, the senators said. At the time the doctor was hired at Marion, information about medical malpractice payments he'd made in 2004 and 2005 as well as the fact that he'd been the subject of a hospital disciplinary action were available on the Web site, they said.

In the letter Thursday, Durbin and Obama asked for answers to more than a dozen questions, including whether or not the VA accessed the Massachusetts board's Web site and how the VA responded if it did.

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