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Almost 600 Veterans Affairs dental patients possibly exposed to HIV, hepatitis

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Courtesy USMC / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

WISCONSIN – Nearly 600 patients who received dental care at a Wisconsin Veterans Affairs medical center may have been exposed to HIV, hepatitis B and C and now face an anxious wait to find out if they were infected.

Earlier this week, officials said a dentist at the Tomah VA Medical Center improperly re-used his own dental equipment instead of using the sterilized, disposable tools as VA rules require.

“It was purposeful that he was violating VA regulations,” said Victoria Brahm, acting medical director at the Tomah VA Center in a press briefing earlier this week.

“During all of the orientation, he used our equipment. He used it appropriately, so it was very purposeful from what we found in our investigation that he knew exactly what he was doing, and preferred to use his own equipment against procedure.”

A fill-in assistant recognized the breach in protocol and reported the issue, according to CNN affiliate WEAU.

The dentist, who has not been identified, is expected to appear in front of a review board Monday as he faces administrative proceedings, said Matthew Gowan, a spokesman for the Tomah VA.

The dentist was hired at the facility in October 2015 and saw 592 patients there. His patients were notified this week that they may have been exposed.

The VA is offering them free testing and follow-up care. The blood test results take about two to three weeks, WEAU reported.

The dentist has since been moved to an administrative role and is not seeing patients.

The most important part is the actual risk of infection is low here — it is out of an abundance of caution that we are doing this,” said Gowan.

A team at the medical center looked at records of known HIV, hepatitis B and C cases, what kind of work was done by the dentist and the risk of transmission.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, questioned why the dentist has not been fired.

“This news is not just heartbreaking; it’s outrageous,” he said in a statement. “How can our veterans be treated so carelessly and where is the accountability?”

“The individual in question has not even been fired — a truly stunning show of bureaucratic impunity. This demonstrates once and for all that the VA needs a complete overhaul, so that our veterans finally get the care — and the respect — they deserve.”