A vignette of research life in the Department of Veterans Affairs (a.k.a. the VA)

As blogger Roy Poses at Health Care Renewal wrote, some things you can't make up. Trying to compete with the Department of Veterans Affairs in the "can you imagine what they did" sweepstakes i fruitless, as I have cause to know. They are perhaps the most dysfunctional federal agency I have ever encountered, although admittedly my experiences working for them predated the Department of Homeland Security, which from all evidence is the all time champion in incompetence and dysfunctionality. Back to the VA:

U.S. House members on Tuesday admonished Veterans Affairs officials from Pittsburgh for ordering the destruction of thousands of Legionella samples even as a researcher was attempting to save the 'irreplaceable' collection.

The destroyed samples represented nearly 30 years of medical research by Dr. Victor Yu, former chief of the VA's Infectious Disease Section, and Dr. Janet Stout, former director of the Special Pathogens Laboratory in Oakland and one of the nation's leading researchers in Legionnaires' disease.

During a congressional hearing held in Washington and carried live on the Internet, VA officials said they destroyed the samples because Yu and Stout did not provide a catalog of their research material after they were abruptly fired in July 2006.
The officials said they tossed the vials six months later, unaware of their research and diagnostic value. (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

Tragic perhaps (for the researcher), but these things happen. But the VA version may not be the whole story:

E-mail records show Dr. Mona Melhem, the associate chief of staff for clinical services at the VA's Pittsburgh Health Service, ordered the destruction of the samples shortly after learning that Stout would arrive at the lab the next day to pick them up.

'The most troubling part of this story is that the destruction of this one-of-a-kind collection occurred less than an hour after Dr. Melhem learned that formal steps were being taken, on the following day, to transfer the collection,' Miller said.


Melhem testified she had no personal problem with Yu or Stout.

She said she shuttered the Oakland laboratory where Stout and Yu worked because it 'was not productive and was a drain on clinical resources.'

Melhem insisted repeatedly that she did not know the thousands of vials -- each marked with letters and numbers and placed in racks -- were being used for research when she ordered staff to toss them. Melhem said she and staff found "a freezer filled with unidentifiable specimens," some of them stored in 'broken or unidentifiable tubes.'

Two different stories. Which one is closer to the truth? Or is neither? Unhappily I'd have to say that the "deliberately tossed out of spite" version is closer to my VA experience than the VA's innocent explanation, if ignorance is an innocent explanation. This is an agency of small minds thinking tiny, and not thinking tiny very well, either.

The VA is one of the ways we "support our troops." It is a way we should be ashamed of.


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This is absolutely worth the read and I hope we can make these absolutely vital changes.