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Surgeon is at center of VA hospital probe

Prior complaints of malpractice in Mass. are cited

A surgeon with a history of malpractice complaints in Massachusetts was involved in "aggressive, complex surgeries" at a Veterans Affairs medical center in southern Illinois that went beyond what that site could handle, resulting in a spike in deaths there, US Senator Richard Durbin said yesterday.

"These are things that just should not have taken place at that hospital" in Marion, Durbin told the Associated Press after being briefed by Michael Kussman, VA undersecretary for health, about an investigation into Dr. Jose Veizaga-Mendez.

The VA hired Veizaga-Mendez despite his being barred from practicing in Massachusetts last year after accusations of grossly substandard care. He resigned from the Marion hospital in August, shortly before the hospital suspended inpatient surgeries because of a spike in postsurgical deaths, reportedly from October 2006 to March.

Nine people died during a six-month period when the typical mortality rate would have been two, Durban said he was told.

"The nine deaths were related to aggressive, complex surgeries that were beyond the normal capacity of the Marion VA hospital," meaning the operations were beyond the surgeon's expertise, the equipment was insufficient, or there were not enough medical personnel, Durbin said.

After hearing from Kussman, "it's clear that this Dr. Mendez was involved in some capacity with the surgeries that resulted in these deaths," even if he wasn't the actual surgeon each time, Durbin said.

A message left for Pete McBrady, the Marion site's acting director, was not immediately returned. A telephone listing for Veizaga-Mendez could not be found.

The widow of one of Veizaga-Mendez's patients has filed an administrative complaint with the VA. Bob Shank, 50, of Murray, Ky., died Aug. 10, a day after gallbladder surgery.

Yesterday, Durbin said he learned Veizaga-Mendez was hired in January 2006 by the VA system while he was licensed in Massachusetts and Illinois.

In mid-2006, after surrendering his Massachusetts medical license, Veizaga-Mendez told VA administrators in Marion that he no longer was practicing in that state and didn't want to pay the licensing fees, Durbin said. He also cited a dispute in Massachusetts about some information in a malpractice suit against him, the senator said.

"To my mind, that's as far as their investigation went," Durbin said. "It turns out the man has a long history of medical malpractice cases and claims."

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