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Derwinski Says Reviewers Failed to See Hospital’s Poor Care

April 24, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Poor care went undetected at a suburban Chicago veterans hospital because ″review systems failed us,″ Veterans Affairs Secretary Edward Derwinski said today.

After linking eight deaths at the North Chicago hospital to a variety of errors, Derwinski said his department is drafting a checklist that will be used to measure the quality of care at all VA medical centers.

″We’re emphasizing the simplicity aspect - yes, no, quickly identified indicators,″ Derwinski testified at a congressional hearing. ″In an imperfect world we only have imperfect systems, but we’re striving to come as close to perfection as we can.″

A House Veterans Affairs subcommittee summoned Derwinski and others to testify, a month after the VA’s inspector general issued a damning report on the 1,004-bed North Chicago hospital.

The report includes details on 15 deaths, including eight that the VA has labeled ″therapeutic misadventures.″ The department is negotiating compensation with families of the eight victims, and two claims have been filed, one for $500,000 and another for $750,000, said VA attorney Raoul Carroll.

Vascular and orthopedic surgeries have been discontinued at North Chicago. The chief of staff has been demoted, and the hospital’s former director, now at VA headquarters here, has been reassigned.

″The larger implications of the North Chicago situation have not been lost on the department,″ Derwinski said. ″We are facing up to the fact that existing review systems failed us in this instance.″

Hospitals and Health Care subcommittee Chairman G.V. ″Sonny″ Montgomery, D-Miss., asked Derwinski if the North Chicago problems were an ″infection″ that had spread to other VA hospitals.

″We’re determined that there be no more North Chicagos. We have no indication″ of similar problems elsewhere, the secretary said.

But ″we are determined to use this very difficult situation as a catalyst to obtaining improvements throughout the system. ... Much has to be done frankly,″ Derwinski said.

In response to a question, VA Inspector General Stephen Trodden said the VA did not plan to refer any of the cases to the Justice Department for possible criminal investigation.

The VA’s former deputy chief medical officer, D. Earl Brown Jr., told the subcommittee that veterans hospitals across the country do not deserve a black eye because of the North Chicago scandal.

″If there are so many checks on the VA system, why are they not able to avoid such problems as precipitated this hearing?″ Brown said. ″I believe that there are adequate systems in place in the VA to detect ... problems.″

Larry W. Rivers, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said North Chicago strayed from its traditional mission as a hospital offering long-term care and psychiatric aid.

He blamed the Chicago Medical School, which is affiliated with the hospital, and the North Chicago staff for shifting the emphasis to complicated surgeries.

″Once the wrongful and tragic deaths of veteran patients occurred, a conspiracy of silence is the only way to describe the inaction that followed,″ Rivers said.

An investigation of the hospital began in June 1990, after Derwinski received three anonymous letters alleging poor care.

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