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Veterans Affairs Department officials used tens of thousands of biological implants in surgeries last year, but they can’t fully account for their safety, according to investigators from the Government Accountability Office.
VA doctors used nearly 60,000 tissue-based implants in 2013 — such as skin and bone grafts, heart valves and tendon replacements.
But the GAO report found many were purchased through vendors not vetted by the Food and Drug Administration, which raises serious questions about where they originated
The agency also said VA has not developed an automated tracking system for which products were used in surgeries in various facilities, raising concerns that officials could not identify which patients to contact even if problems in the supply chain were identified.
Marcia Crosse, GAO’s health care director, noted that so far, no evidence has surfaced that veterans have been contaminated by tainted biological implants.
But identifying such problems is difficult, and made more complicated by VA’s outdated systems, she said.
Lawmakers have been concerned over the lack of information about tissue purchases since reports two years ago that military and veterans hospitals bought products indirectly from a supplier later convicted of illegally harvesting body parts from cadavers.
At a hearing April 3, members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said VA officials need to find solutions to the tracking problems quickly, before serious health problems arise.
“VA needs to make VHA the premier health care delivery system it aspires to be,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., referring to the Veterans Health Administration, the VA agency that operates its hospitals. “The six million veterans served annually by VHA deserve the highest standard of patient care in the nation.”
VA officials acknowledged shortfalls in the system, but said they have made dramatic improvements in recent years. Recommendations on overhauls to the system are expected this fall.
Philip Matkovsky, VA’s assistant deputy undersecretary for health and administrative operations, said officials do research on vendors used for tissue purchases, even if they don’t have FDA approval.
Lawmakers said they will push for new legislation requiring the department to adopt clearer standards for biological implants, and track all tissue-based items from source to surgery.