The Washington DC VA Medical Center is trying to reopen its troubled mammography program.
The flagship hospital of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has suffered a series of setbacks in providing breast cancer screenings for hundreds of its patients since the summer of 2019, according to an investigation by the News4 I-Team.
The U.S. House ordered an internal inspection of the Northwest Washington, D.C, hospital because of a series of I-Team reports in 2019. That inspection, newly released by the VA’s Office of Inspector General, found a series of key staff departures, failures to send out notifications to patients and delays in restarting on-site screenings.
Multiple sources told the I-Team the on-site breast cancer screening program has been closed since 2019 with an uncertain timetable for its reopening.
Though the VA has allowed and helped patients to seek taxpayer-funded breast screenings at private hospitals during the shutdown, the disruption of the breast cancer screening program has been an inconvenience to veterans and a blemish to the reputation of one of the nation’s largest VA hospitals. The agency has been referring more than 300 patients each month to private medical providers in the D.C.-region for mammography services during the closure of the hospital’s on-site mammography program.
“High turnover usually means low morale and raises questions about management,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who chairs a US House subcommittee with oversight of federal inspectors general. Connolly said the internal inspection by the VA Inspector General raises questions about whether a “culture of complacency” is dogging part of the medical center.
In a written statement, a VA spokesperson said, “We are actively pursuing (the mammography program’s) reopening. We’ve hired an experienced mammography radiologist who is working on reinstituting the program.” The agency said it is trying to hire additional staff and secure new equipment and space for a revamped mammography program.
The internal inspection by the VA Inspector General specified a series of incidents prior to the halting of on-site mammography services in 2019. The inspection said the breast cancer screening program suffered delays in distributing letters to patients with summaries and explanations of the results of their screenings.
The inspection confirmed the findings of a 2019 I-Team investigation which first revealed delays in distributing the letters. The inspection said, “On August 22, 2019, the facility’s lead mammography technologist discovered approximately two ‘reams’ of mammography lay summary letters in (a desk) drawer. The letters were dated from February 28, 2019, through June 22, 2019, and were required to have been mailed to patients within 30 days of completing mammography procedures.”
The inspection said it did not find any “clinically significant adverse outcomes related to the lack of timely notification” for patients but did reveal a series of procedural and bookkeeping practices that needed to be improved. The hospital’s chief mammography radiologist resigned shortly after the delays in distributing summary letters was discovered in 2019.
The DC VA Medical Center provided this response:
"Mammography care for Veterans is actively provided through the VA Care in the Community program. The DC VA Medical Center refers between 300-385 Veterans to mammography care in the community on a monthly basis. The care in the community program offers veterans greater choice and access to health care where and when they need it.
"While the DC VAMC isn't currently offering in-house mammography services, we are actively pursuing its reopening. We’ve hired an experienced mammography radiologist who is working on reinstituting the program via an action plan which incorporates the following:
- Strengthened Radiology Department staffing;
- Expanded and refined training materials and documentation practices;
- Expanded space for mammography and ultrasound;
- And a strategic plan for continual process improvement.
"We look forward to once again offering veterans a full spectrum of mammography services once we're able to meet the high standards we've set for this program."
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.