By HOPE YEN, Associated Press Writer, March 23, 2007
The Veterans Affairs' vast network of 1,400 health clinics
and hospitals is beset by maintenance problems such as mold,
leaking roofs and even a colony of bats, an internal review
The investigation, ordered two weeks ago by VA Secretary Jim
Nicholson, is the first major review of the facilities conducted
since the disclosure of squalid conditions at Walter Reed Army
A copy of the report was provided to The Associated Press.
Democrats newly in charge of Congress called the report the
latest evidence of an outdated system unable to handle a coming
influx of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Investigators
earlier this month found that the VA's system for handling
disability claims was strained to its limit.
"Who's been minding the store?" said Sen. Patty Murray (news,
bio, voting record), D-Wash., a member of the Senate Veterans
Affairs Committee. "They keep putting Band-Aids on problems,
when what the agency needs is major triage."
The report found that 90 percent of the 1,100 problems cited
were deemed to be of a more routine nature: worn-out carpet,
peeling paint, mice sightings and dead bugs at VA centers.
The other 10 percent were considered serious and included
mold spreading in patient care areas. Eight cases were so
troubling they required immediate attention and follow-up
action, according to the 94-page review.
Some of the more striking problems were found at a VA clinic
in White City, Ore. There, officials reported roof leaks
throughout the facility, requiring them to "continuously repair
the leaks upon occurrence, clean up any mold presence if any
exists, spray or remove ceiling tiles."
In addition, large colonies of bats resided outside the
facility and sometimes flew into the attics and interior parts
of the building.
"Eradication has been discussed but the uniqueness of the
situation (the number of colonies) makes it challenging to
accomplish," according to the report, which said the bats were
being tested for diseases. "Also, the bats keep the insect
pollution to a minimum which is beneficial."
In other findings:
_In Oklahoma City, secondhand smoke from an outside smoking
shelter sometimes infiltrated the building through the women's
_Deteriorating walls and hallways were common, requiring
repair, patch and paint in 30 percent of patient areas in Little
_Numerous unspecified "environmental conditions" affected the
quality of the building in New York's Hudson Valley, with the
private landlord repeatedly refusing to fix problems. The VA is
taking steps to relocate to another facility.
_Roof leaks or mold at facilities such as Hudson Valley;
North Chicago, Ill.; Indianapolis; Puget Sound, Wash.; Portland,
Ore; and Fayetteville, Ark.
Veterans groups said they were concerned about the findings
but also appreciated the VA's aggressive efforts to identify
"We now expect these problems to be corrected immediately and
not shelved due to insufficient funding or because the proper
care and treatment of our wounded veterans is no longer in the
national spotlight," said Joe Davis, spokesman of Veterans of
John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government
Employees, which represents 150,000 VA workers, added: "Clearly
the problems facing the VA require increased funding as well as
In response, Nicholson this week ordered "immediate
corrective action" to fix problems, with full accounting
provided to the VA. He noted that an overwhelming majority of
the issues were normal "wear and tear" items.
In many cases where there were roof leaks or mold, officials
had begun action to order patches or repairs, the department
said. In some instances, they were moving to new facilities.
"The level of detail in the reports and the corrective
actions enumerated demonstrate your responsiveness to my
request," Nicholson wrote in an order Monday to VA medical
In interviews, VA officials said they were somewhat reassured
by the report, which they said indicated no red flags rising to
the level of problems at outpatient facilities at Walter Reed in
Washington, D.C., one of the premier facilities for treating
those wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Walter Reed is a military hospital run by the Defense
Department. Critics long have said problems of military care
extend to the VA's vast network, which provides supplemental
health care and rehabilitation to 5.8 million veterans.
But VA officials noted that despite some problems, the VA
health system consistently outperforms private-sector hospitals
in customer satisfaction.
"There was no imminent threat of harm to patients," said
Louise Van Diepen, chief of staff to VA's acting undersecretary
for health, Michael Kussman. "We have no indication to lead us
to believe there is a smoking gun."
"Could it happen? Yes. But we're doing everything we can
prospectively to monitor the situation," she said.
Three high-level Pentagon officials have been forced to step
down after the disclosures last month at Walter Reed. The
controversy also has led to investigations by congressional
committees, a presidential task force and the Pentagon.
A separate review of the VA system for handling disability
claims is under way to determine how to cut through bureaucratic
delays, confusing paperwork and long appeals process as
thousands of veterans return home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
On the Net:
Department of Veterans Affairs: http://www.va.gov/