1,800 Vets May Have Been Exposed to HIV, Hepatitis: What Went Wrong?

John Cochran VA Medical Center in St. Louis (U.S Department of Veteran Affairs)
U.S Department of Veteran Affairs
John Cochran VA Medical Center in St. Louis (U.S Department of Veteran Affairs)
John Cochran VA Medical Center in St. Louis (U.S Department of Veteran Affairs)

(CBS) A Veterans Affairs hospital in Missouri may have exposed more than 1,800 veterans to HIV and other life-threatening diseases due to improperly cleaned dental instruments.

The John Cochran VA Medical Center in St. Louis recently began sending letters notifying 1,812 veterans from Missouri and Illinois who received dental work at the hospital between February, 2009 and March, 2010.

The letters say the risk of infection is low. But the hospital is offering veterans free screening for hepatitis B and C as well as HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

"We deeply regret that this situation occurred and we assure you that we are taking all the necessary steps to make certain that testing is offered quickly and results communicated timely," the letters said, according to the Post-Dispatch.

Some dental technicians hand-washed instruments before putting them in cleaning machines, Dr. Dr. Gina Michael, chief of staff at the hospital, told CNN. She said the instruments should have been put into the machines without pre-washing.

Katie Roberts, press secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, told CBS News via email that "VA leadership recognizes the seriousness of this situation and has implemented safeguards to prevent a similar situation from occurring again."

But the VA drew harsh criticism from Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Missouri) who called for a congressional investigation into the matter.

"This is absolutely unacceptable," he said in a prepared statement. "No veteran who has served and risked their life for this great nation should have to worry about their personal safety when receiving much needed healthcare services from a Veterans Administration hospital."

One recipient of a notification letter was Veronica Lynn Williams, 57, of Swansea, Ill., who had a tooth reconstructed at the hospital, according to the Post-Dispatch. But she told the paper she wasn't angry.

"Things happen," she said. "I don't fault the VA. I have been treated here for several years, and my life has been saved on several occasions."

But Rep. Carnahan wasn't quite as forgiving.

Of the veterans who received the letter, he said, "They have every right to be angry. So am I."

Veterans who may have been affected can call the hospital at 888-374-3046.