Reports of critical problems at Long Island’s only veterans hospital have raised such alarm that the House Veterans Affairs Committee has scheduled a hearing at the facility on Tuesday.
Committee leaders say they first became concerned earlier this year after the Northport facility was forced to close all of its operating rooms when aging air conditioning units began spewing contaminants near where doctors perform surgeries.
Those concerns increased last month after an outpatient at the facility shot himself to death in a parking lot at the hospital, reportedly after being turned away from an emergency room moments before.
“There are more questions than answers regarding a number of serious allegations at the Northport VA,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who is a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Members of the Long Island delegation have accused medical center director Phillip C. Moschitta of hiding problems there, making it harder for Congress to provide needed resources.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs is only contributing to this uncertainty by stonewalling congressional efforts to investigate,” Zeldin said.
In interviews with a Newsday reporter, one patient as well as current employees spoke of a number of issues: a patient’s procedure being delayed for three hours because an anesthesiologist was not available; leaking roofs in the medical center’s main hospital building, with plastic sheets used to funnel leaking water into a toilet; heavy dust on ventilation vents.
A medical center spokesman, Todd Goodman, said Moschitta would not be available for comment until after Tuesday’s hearing.
“We look forward to addressing fully the committee’s concerns and working together to find ways to improve the safety and well-being of our veterans and employees, and the efficiency of our operations,” Goodman said in a statement.
Northport is vital to Long Island’s estimated 130,000 veterans, many of whom depend on the facility to receive care for war wounds, combat-related psychological stress, or geriatric maladies.
But age-related maintenance issues are challenging VA medical facilities all across the country. And experts say the problem may get worse, as the VA struggles with Congress to secure larger budget outlays even as the giant health agency has been accused of mismanaging the money it already has.
Last September, a report by the McKinsey consulting group said VA facilities nationwide are facing “accelerating and likely unfunded capital requirements driven by maintenance to aging infrastructure.”
Concerns that growing numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were taxing the VA’s ability to keep up with maintenance date back at least to 2005, published accounts show.
For the most part, Northport has not had to endure the same criticism that has roiled Veterans Affairs facilities elsewhere, which have been hit with accusations of long wait times and corrupt or incompetent administrators.
But last spring, members of Long Island’s congressional delegation said they were blindsided by news accounts that Northport had quietly closed all five of its operating rooms months earlier.
The operating rooms remained mostly unused for more than three months after staff noticed that air handlers were spitting tiny bits of corroded metal near surgical tables, leading to worries that mold or other contamination could find its way into open surgical wounds. They did not reopen until news accounts reached members of Congress, who pressured hospital officials to speed the installation of air filters.
Patients in urgent need of surgery were forced to seek medical care at VA hospitals in Manhattan or the Bronx. Some were treated at VA expense at Stony Brook University Hospital.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said that, while veterans organizations he is in contact with have expressed general approval of Northport’s operations, the Aug. 24 gunshot suicide of a 76-year-old outpatient in a parking lot is concerning, as are maintenance problems.
“Was that because there was not enough mental health care?” King asked. “Do they have adequate personnel?”