Minimally invasive surgeries will resume at a southern Illinois Veterans Administration medical center that halted all operations since 2007 after a spike in patient deaths, the VA announced Wednesday.
Procedures considered "standard-level surgeries," including appendectomies and hernia repair that carry low complication risks, are cleared to resume at the VA site in Marion, Ill., spokeswoman Peggy Willoughby said. Willoughby said none of the procedures had been scheduled as of mid-day Wednesday, and it was not immediately clear how quickly the first operation might take place.
It also wasn't known when the medical center that serves veterans in portions of Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana would resume more serious and invasive surgeries, including those related to heart or lung matters.
The facility has been under intense scrutiny since August 2007, when a surgeon resigned after a patient bled to death following gall bladder 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 later 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.
Since then, the site's current chief insisted Wednesday, the Marion VA has made "significant improvements" and successfully completed internal scrutiny by the department's investigative watchdogs, along the way getting full accreditation last December from the independent Joint Commission, which monitors health-care standards.
"We are confident we are providing veterans the quality care they earned," added Paul Bockelman, the medical center's director since July of last year. "All of us _ our employees, volunteers, veterans, family members, veterans service organizations and community members _ are united in our vision to partner with each other as we continue to focus on providing the best care for veterans."
Federal lawmakers from Illinois heralded the development, noting that the surgical shutdown often forced veterans served by the medical center to travel long distances _ at times hundreds of miles _ to get the procedures done at VA sites elsewhere.
"It has taken over three years to bring the Marion VA surgical services back on track," Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said in a statement also including Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and Reps. Jerry Costello, a Democrat, and Republican John Shimkus.
"While the process was long, the health and safety of our veterans should always be the priority. I will continue to monitor the progress of the Marion VA closely," Shimkus said.
The medical center resumed limited outpatient surgeries _ things like knee arthroscopies, prostate biopsies and vasectomies _ in early 2008.
After the 2007 surgical shutdown at the Marion VA, separate reports by the medical inspector of the Veterans Health Administration and the VA inspector general described the hospital's surgical program as in disarray with shoddy administrative oversight. Inspectors found that the hospital undertook many surgeries it was ill-equipped to handle because of staffing or lack of surgical expertise, and hospital administrators were too slow to respond once problems surfaced.
But the inspector general's report last fall credited the Marion site with great strides in more timely peer review for quality management and stepped-up communication of identified issues. The hospital also has in place ways to better disclose adverse events to patients who have been harmed by such things as significant medical errors.
The inspector general's review covered a six-month period from February through July of last year.
The Marion VA is designing a $13 million effort to relocate and expand its operating room and emergency department, and plans are afoot to modernize an in-patient ward. Construction is to begin this summer. The site has boosted its work force from 1,074 workers in 2007 to 1,382 now, including what the lawmakers said Wednesday was a full cadre of general surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses to support a standard-level inpatient surgery program.