Failures of cooling equipment have dogged the Washington DC VA Medical Center in recent months, angering patients, triggering flooding, forcing staff to throw away thousands of flu vaccines and contributing to safety violations in the medical center’s blood bank.
The malfunctions were revealed in a series of records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the News4 I-Team and confirmed by agency officials.
The malfunctions include breakdowns of air conditioning systems, refrigerators and cooling pipes. The incidents disrupted patients and operations and contribute to a growing backlog of repair needs at the medical center and VA facilities nationwide.
Some of the failures created steamy, uncomfortable conditions inside patient rooms, work areas and the medical center’s major auditorium in July, the I-Team learned. Patient Edgar Gleason, who was hospitalized last month for complications from multiple sclerosis, said he walked out of the medical center because of unbearable heat in his room.
“The air conditioning wasn’t working,” Gleason said. “It was 90 degrees in my room. (There were) no fans. I couldn’t sleep at night because it was hot.”
The agency acknowledges air conditioning also failed in sections of the medical center’s third floor. An agency official told the I-Team the auditorium air conditioning problem was repaired in late July. The official also said “spot coolers” were distributed for areas of the medical center in which the temperatures were nearing 90 degrees.
The problems add to a long list of repairs needed inside the medical center. There is almost $88 million worth of air and cooling systems in the facility, with ongoing and scheduled repairs planned through 2022.
The failure of a refrigeration device caused a temperature spike in October in a unit used to store flu vaccines. The incident triggered a temperature spike, spoiling more than 2,200 boxes of vaccine. At least 22,080 doses were deemed unusable and scrapped, the I-Team learned. The total dollar value loss is estimated at $282,160.
Veterans of Foreign Wars associate director Patrick Murray said the agency is failing to invest sufficient money to upgrade its cooling and refrigeration systems nationwide. He said failures are not surprising, but they are disruptive.
“When you have 90 degree temperatures and humidity, it can lead to a terrible situation for patients in these rooms,” Murray said. “It can also lead to refrigeration problems.”
Murray said the flu shots cost taxpayer money but fortunately did not lead to patient illness or death.
A failure of a cooling pipe triggered a disruptive flood inside the medical center in May, the I-Team learned.
A burst pipe flooded five levels of the Washington DC VA Medical Center earlier this month, forcing the postponement of more than a dozen outpatient procedures and the transfer of a patient who was being treated in the intensive care unit.
Agency records and sources with knowledge of the incident said it occurred the morning of May 18 and created a two-hour power outage in a medical center pharmacy.
The flooding was triggered by a burst air cooling pipe in the B wing of the medical center’s fourth floor, according to agency records. The flooding spread to other levels in the facility. Crews shut down power to reduce the risk from electrical panels.
“The leak was repaired shortly after it was discovered, and all of the water was removed from the impacted areas,” a spokeswoman said in a statement to the News4 I-Team.
A March 2018 FDA inspection of the medical center’s blood bank revealed problems with temperatures near blood bank equipment and components. The inspection said DC VA Medical Center staff acknowledged room temperatures were too warm and problems regulating temperature have been known since 2004.
According to the inspection, which was released to the I-Team under the Freedom of Information Act, a VA official said, “Concerns have been brought up since 2004 but they have not been successfully addressed. (The official) stated although against the firm’s policy, they try to keep doors open in blood bank technical area because it becomes too warm and stuffy and the equipment emits a lot of heat."
An FDA official declined to comment on the inspection or corrective actions undertaken by the medical center to address the issues. An agency database shows the March inspection findings constituted violations in the blood bank.
Multiple agency officials said the blood bank temperature findings from the FDA were circulated among agency officials at agency headquarters.
Officials at the medical center, VA central offices, VA national public affairs team and the VA’s mid-Atlantic regional office declined multiple requests for interviews about the air conditioning, refrigeration and blood bank issues.
“We will continue with planned repairs to ensure veterans receive safe, quality health care and employees are in a safe work environment,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.
The medical center’s longtime director was fired in 2017 after an inspection by the VA Office of Inspector General found mismanagement, supply shortages and unsanitary conditions in the facility. Acting director Larry Connell took over management of the center in April 2017 but was reassigned in April 2018. Two other temporary leaders have since managed the facility, with another director expected to be named in the coming months.
Gleason, the veteran who walked out from a hot patient room in July, said agency administrators should have more urgency to improve the DC VA Medical Center.
“I thought about other veterans, veterans who don’t have any other options,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to speak up at this time.’”
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones and Jeff Piper.