Miami VA Hospital Chief Out in Colonoscopy Scandal

Nov 16, 2011 Issues: Veterans

“On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Miami Republican in whose district the VA hospital is located, said she hopes that “the new leadership will take immediate steps to assure that our patriots receive the first class healthcare they have earned, and I look forward to working with the Miami VA to assure this.”

Miami VA hospital chief out in colonoscopy scandal

More than two years after the Miami Veterans Administration hospital notified 2,500 veterans that they may have had colonoscopies with improperly cleaned equipment, Mary Berrocal was removed from her job and reassigned Wednesday.

BY FRED TASKER
FTASKER@MIAMIHERALD.COM
Mary Berrocal, head of the Miami Veterans Administration hospital when more than 2,500 local veterans were told the colonoscopies they had there might have been performed with improperly cleaned equipment, was removed from her position Wednesday by U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.
Berrocal had been under fire since May 2009, when the national VA revealed that as many as 11,000 U.S. military veterans at VA facilities in Miami, Georgia and Tennessee might have had colonoscopies with equipment that had been simply rinsed between uses rather than sterilized by steam and chemicals as required by the manufacturer.
Of the more than 2,500 South Florida vets affected, blood tests done after the potential exposure showed five positive for HIV, eight for hepatitis C and one for hepatitis B. The VA said there was no way to know if they had been infected by the improperly cleaned equipment, but promised free lifetime care for all those affected.
Berrocal will “transition” to a VA administrative office in St. Petersburg “until placement details are finalized,” according a statement announcing Berrocal’s removal from the Miami VA.
“VA leadership decided that even though Miami is making great strides to improve clinical care, too much attention had been focused on the current director to let her continue to do her job,” said Florida VA spokeswoman Mary Kay Hollingsworth.
The move does not end Berrocal’s VA career, she said: “She will be reassigned.”
Hollingsworth did not know if Berrocal’s new job would be at the same level.
Berrocal, who had headed the Miami VA hospital since 2008, will be replaced on an interim basis by an acting director, Cheri Szabo, currently director of the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center.
Berrocal and her chief of staff, Dr. John Vara, were “admonished” earlier this year by the national VA – an administrative punishment that stays on an employee’s record for two years.
Berrocal, a native of Puerto Rico who joined the VA system in 1980, had worked at VA facilities in Clarksburg, W.Va.; Columbia, South Carolina; Loma Linda, Calif., Los Angeles and Gainesville.
Vara earlier was reassigned to the VA hospital in West Palm Beach as chief of staff for education and research.
Two U.S. congressional committees held hearings and criticized Berrocal and Vara. In one hearing, U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said: “I’d recommend that you let them go.”
On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Miami Republican in whose district the VA hospital is located, said she hopes that “the new leadership will take immediate steps to assure that our patriots receive the first class healthcare they have earned, and I look forward to working with the Miami VA to assure this.”
Two reports by the VA’s Administrative Investigation Board, which began investigating after the colonoscopy problems, criticized the Miami VA facility for poor quality control, lax supervision and sloppy procedures.
One of the reports said: “Technicians and nurses responsible for setting up and cleaning endoscopic equipment used for colonoscopies had not been instructed that it had to be sterilized after each use, and were only rinsing it. Technicians and nurses do not routinely read manuals, but go more on experience. When technicians were not available due to vacation or illness, nurses would set up and clean endoscopic equipment, though they weren’t trained to do it.”
Berrocal told the committee she was “keenly cognizant of anything that would be less than perfect for our veterans,” and promised reforms. Outside the committee hearing, she has not commented publicly since late 2009.
Hundreds of veterans have filed notice to sue. U.S. Air Force veteran Robert Metzler of Coral Gables took his case before U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan in August.
“The VA has a duty to give veterans the absolute best care possible,” Metzler’s attorney, Ervin Gonzalez, told the judge. “It failed, and ruined his life. It put at risk veterans who went to the VA for colonoscopies.”
Jordan has not yet ruled in the case.
Szabo, Miami’s new interim director, started her VA career in Miami 37 years ago as a health system specialist at the VA hospital. She has worked at VA facilities in Pittsburgh, Richmond, Va. and Newington, Conn. She was appointed director in West Palm Beach in 2006 and will return there when a new permanent Miami director is named, Hollingsworth said.