Fla. veteran says he is HIV positive, will sue VA



Associated Press Writer

MIAMI — A South Florida veteran who claims he contracted HIV during an endoscopic colonoscopy at a Miami Department of Veterans Affairs hospital said on Tuesday his attorneys have filed a notice that he will sue the federal government.

Army veteran Juan Rivera, 55, claims he contracted HIV from the procedure on or about May 19, 2008. Rivera said he had been tested twice and both times he was positive for the disease.

Rivera is married with five grown children. He served in the Army from 1976 to 1989 and now works as postal office transportation specialist.

Ira H. Leesfield, an attorney for Rivera, said the notice filed July 20 is necessary under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Rivera has to give the federal government six months before he files a federal lawsuit. Leesfield said the claim states Rivera will sue for $20 million in damages.

The notice said the incident was caused by “the carelessness and negligence of the VA in cleaning and maintaining their equipment, as well as failing to adopt and implement proper policies, protocols and procedures.”

“I think what we are looking for is a change of attitude, a change of procedure, a change of commitment to the veterans,” Leesfield said.

Leesfield said the VA has responded by asking for Rivera’s medical records. A VA spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to telephone or e-mail messages seeking comment.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has said that there is no way to prove that the positive tests for infectious diseases stem from exposure to improperly cleaned or erroneously rigged equipment for colonoscopies at facilities in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Miami or while getting treatment at the ear, nose and throat clinic in Augusta, Ga.

Rivera said shock and fear were his first reactions when hearing he was HIV-positive.

“I was scared. I was upset. I was angry. The first thing that comes to my mind is how long am I going to be alive? he told The Associated Press. “I want to make sure this will never happen to any other person. It’s not fair.”

The VA began warning about 10,000 former patients in February that they may have been exposed to infections as far back as 2003. Although the VA says the chance of infection was remote, the patients were advised to get blood tests for HIV and hepatitis.

Records show that among the patients who have heeded VA warnings to get follow-up blood checks, eight have tested positive for HIV. Twelve former patients have tested positive for hepatitis B and 37 have tested positive for hepatitis C.

The VA has said the rate of infections is consistent with or less than what would normally be found among similar populations. But the agency is investigating the cases for connections.

The VA has said the errors were limited to the three states, but a report by the agency’s inspector general suggested more widespread problems.

Even after the well-publicized scare, investigators conducting surprise inspections in May found that only 43 percent of the agency’s medical centers had standard operating procedures in place for endoscopic equipment and could show they properly trained their staffs for using the devices.