Durbin: 'Dramatic change' needed at IL VA hospital

Durbin and other members of Illinois' congressional delegation met with Shinseki last week after the VA inspector general released a report outlining serious problems, including physicians performing procedures without proper authorization and inadequate assessment of patient deaths. The lawmakers met Monday with Inspector General George Opfer.

"I want to give Gen. Shinseki a chance ... (but) if we don't see dramatic change as a result of it, then Congress is going to have to consider other alternatives," Durbin told The Associated Press before Monday's meeting. "So the question now is, 'What will the general do about it?'"

Cathy Gromek, a spokeswoman for Opfer's office, declined to comment about Monday's meeting. But Durbin told the AP that Assistant Inspector General John Daigh Jr. called quality management at Marion's VA hospital the worst of 50 hospitals he has looked at this year.

The Marion VA - which serves veterans in parts of Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky - has been under intense scrutiny since August 2007, when a surgeon resigned three days after a patient bled to death following gallbladder surgery. All inpatient surgeries were suspended within a month, and the site's director, chief of staff, surgical chief and anesthesiologist were moved to other positions, placed on leave or quit.

Investigators found at least nine deaths between October 2006 and March 2007 resulted from substandard care and another 10 patients died after receiving questionable care that complicated their health.

After last week's report, Shinseki said he was sending a top-level quality-management team to Marion for a roughly six-week stay. The VA also appointed retired VA administrator James Roseborough as the hospital's interim administrator. He replaced Warren Hill, who has accepted a VA job in Wisconsin.

Roseborough, who oversaw a network of VA sites in parts of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan after serving as director of VA hospitals in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Poplar Bluff, Mo., said he believes the Marion VA's problems can be resolved.

"I thoroughly believe this is something that can be fixed, not only in Marion but at any VA facility," he said. "I think there is a focus and attention on this where it is critical, it is important. And we are making it work."

Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker said Monday it was premature to discuss what Congress might do if lawmakers did not like Shinseki's plan. Generally, he said, "Congress has broad powers and can do anything from hearings to legislation."

Durbin said he'll remain skeptical until he sees the changes because he heard the same promises from Shinseki's predecessor.

"I'm going to follow this more closely to make sure that does happen," he said.

A VA watchdog group and an attorney for two women whose husbands died in 2007 at the hospital also are doubtful the VA can make meaningful changes in Marion. Larry Scott, founder and editor of VAWatchdog.org, said he would prefer an outside, independent review of the hospital.

"There's a certain element of the fox guarding the hen house when you have a VA (quality management) team coming in to investigate a VA facility," Scott said from his home in Vancouver, Wash.

Stan Heller, an attorney who helped win out-of-court settlements from the U.S. government for two Kentucky widows whose husbands died after questionable surgical care at the hospital, said it was "bothersome" the problems haven't been corrected two years later.

"I think they have made some changes," he said. "The question is: Are the changes just superficial to get everybody off their back, or are they really changing the way the system works there? I don't know."

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