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Rep. Debbie Dingell is seeking answers from the director of the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System following reports that surgeries for veterans were recently canceled or moved to another facility after particulate matter was observed on sterile surgical equipment.

The health care system was investigated last year for a similar issue, but the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and the VA inspector general later verified that changes were made at the hospital to resolve the issue.

“While recognizing you are canceling and moving surgeries to ensure no veterans are being put at risk, this situation is still concerning and raises questions about the source of this particulate matter and what actions are being taken to correct the problem,” the Dearborn Democrat Dingell wrote late Monday in a letter to Ann Arbor Director Robert P. McDivitt.

Derek Atkinson, public affairs officer for the health care system, said a surgery “stand-down” was started the week of Veterans Day this month after staffers noticed a “speck” of micro-particulates — inorganic material — in a surgical equipment case. The matter is believed to have originated with a water main break in the hospital sterilization processing area but was not on the surgical tools, he said.

“This was after the sterilization process and before they were used in the OR, so no veterans were ever in harm's way,” Atkinson said. “This was proactive and really focusing on patient safety.”

Consequently, surgeries were not performed for several days and experts were brought in to evaluate the sterilization process and some equipment was replaced, he said. Meanwhile, patients were offered the option of undergoing surgery at the University of Michigan Health System or rescheduling the procedures later, he said.

Surgeries have since resumed on a limited basis “until we decide what’s going on here,” Atkinson said. “We’re still working through some things to get back up to where we want them to be.”

Officials hope to resume full caseloads soon.

In her letter, Dingell, who indicates she spoke by phone with McDivitt, requests details about how many surgeries and patients had been canceled or transferred to the University of Michigan; what steps and procedures are in place to ensure patient safety; what outside expertise has been brought into consult; and asks about the penalty for a staffer who “accidentally or purposefully” contaminates sterile equipment.

Dingell also inquires about construction of the new Sterile Supply Service area — a focus of the 2014 investigation — asking whether it’s been completed or could be the source of the particulate matter at issue.

“Staff at the hospital deserves credit for their awareness and for recognizing and diligently reporting these incidents,” Dingell wrote.

“We want to work with you to ensure you have the necessary resources to identify and rectify the problem, so everyone can have the highest confidence in the condition of the facilities which our veterans rely on.”

“This is really a proactive measure that we’ve been taking because patient safety is our top priority,” Atkinson said.

“We’ve seen a positive outcome from what we've done thus far, but there still needs to be more done to ensure that when we open up a case, there’s not even one micro-particulate in that case.”

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736

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