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Top VA health official briefs lawmakers on Northport visit

The interior of the three closed operating rooms

The interior of the three closed operating rooms at the VA hospital in Northport are seen through a window. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

The top health official for the Department of Veterans Affairs quietly met with administrators at the Northport VA Medical Center Friday, seeking answers as to why Long Island’s only veterans hospital has been unable to perform surgeries for most of 2016, federal officials said.

Dr. David Shulkin later shared his findings in a conference call with local members of Congress, who had expressed frustration that Northport officials had not told them of problems there.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said Shulkin told them a broken ventilation system that had caused the hospital to close its five surgical rooms would be repaired by Thursday. He said Shulkin gave repeated assurances that Northport’s administration will do a better job of communicating problems to local members of Congress.

Friday’s visit to Northport by Shulkin, who last year was named by President Barack Obama to oversee the nation’s 153 veterans hospitals and 974 clinics, may be an indication of the level of concern in Washington regarding trouble at the Northport facility.

Northport has mostly escaped criticism that has buffeted Veterans Affairs facilities elsewhere, which have been tarred with accusations of long wait times and corrupt or incompetent administrators.

But local members of Congress said they were blindsided by news accounts last month that detailed problems at the 44-year-old hospital building that forced it to close all five operating rooms. 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.

Northport’s surgical unit closed Feb. 17, when staff noticed tiny bits of corroded metal were dropping into operating rooms from ventilation equipment. That led to worries that the metal could find its way into open surgical wounds, endangering patients.

Some of the surgical rooms were used again after the ventilation ducts were cleaned. But Northport officials closed them April 12, when the metal specks began reappearing.

Zeldin said Shulkin told lawmakers parts needed to repair the ventilation system were scheduled to arrive from a Long Island distributor Tuesday and that repairs — which Northport officials have said will cost $32,000 — would be completed Wednesday or Thursday.

He and others said Shulkin told them Northport officials plan to replace the ventilation system entirely within the next few years.

Shulkin did not respond to a reporter’s questions Tuesday. Northport Director Philip Moschita was unavailable for comment.

A congressional staffer who participated in the conference call said Shulkin said about half the nation’s veterans hospitals are a half-century old or older, and that similar ventilation system failures had hampered care at medical centers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Phoenix.

The staffer said the VA is considering having replacement filters built in advance, meaning future breakdowns could be remedied quickly without the need for the long surgical room closures like those at Northport.