Cochran V.A. Hospital improvements
4:40 pm
Wed August 10, 2011

VA secretary says Cochran hospital has "turned a corner"

It's been a bad year for the John Cochran Veterans Administration Medical Center in St. Louis.

  • In June 2010, 1,800 veterans were notified that improperly sterilized dental clinic instruments put them at a slight risk of contracting Hepatitis B and C and HIV. Four veterans tested positive, though there's no way to know if the instruments caused the infection.
  • Then in February, the hospital shut down its surgical suite for several days after discovering unidentified spots on equipment. A month earlier,the hospital was accused of failing to keep basic supplies in stock, but an inspector general report found no wrongdoing in that case.
  • In May, a Veterans Administration official took a beating in a congressional hearing, shortly after the release of two critical reports - one by the department's watch dog and another by the Government Accountability Office.

But today, says Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, the hospital has "turned a corner."

"Leadership counts," Shinseki said. "I had a discussion with Director [Rimaaane] Nelson, and I'm satisfied that we are turning the corner. Many of the things that were in place when we were watching what was happening here, much of that has begun to be be healed, thanks to her leadership."

No one lost their jobs because of the problems at Cochran, Nelson said, calling it counterproductive.

"In order to promote that culture of safety, it can't be about blame," Nelson said.  "If it's about blame, people are not going to report. The focus is on the systems and the processes that have failed."

In that May hearing, Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay went as far to suggest that veterans in the St. Louis area receive vouchers to get care at other hospitals.

But standing alongside Shinseki today after the secretary spoke to the 67th National Convention of the veteran's service organization Amvets, Clay sounded a much different tone.

"[Cochran] serves tens of thousands of veteran patients in this region," Clay said. "We have focused on one incident, but through my office and other offices we hear success stories every day about the treatment that they get, about the turnaround that the secretary mentioned. And people for the most part walk away satisfied."

Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, who launched (with the cooperation of Amvets and the VA) a survey process for veterans to review VA hospitals, said she believed the transformation is sincere.

"Rather than make excuses, Cochran said okay, this is an area where we need more work in. I think the culture at Cochran is changed. I think it is changed from a culture of we know best, and we are here and we'll serve you but it's not really what we want to do."

The executive director of the Missouri Amvets department agreed with the assessment, saying his members have seen an improvement since the dental clinic incident.