A group of six veterans filed a class-action lawsuit Wednesday against the U.S. government, claiming they suffered emotional distress after learning that a dentist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah may have spread blood-borne infections by using unsterilized instruments.
In September, the VA Office of Inspector General said in a report that lapses in hygiene by former VA dentist Thomas Schiller could have exposed hundreds of veterans to infections that included HIV and hepatitis.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Madison, seeks compensation for emotional distress for 592 veterans who are potential members of the class action, all of whom were treated by Schiller between October 2015 and October 2016 and were notified by letter that they should be tested for HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
Some of the group was forced to wait for another six months for further blood testing to confirm that they were not infected with any of the diseases, the lawsuit states.
None were reported to be infected, the lawsuit states, but while they waited for results, they “were forced to consider that they may have been infected with deadly viruses, may die as a result of having been infected, and/or may have unknowingly infected their loved ones with deadly viruses.”
The lawsuit alleges that Schiller was inadequately trained and supervised, and that his superiors knew or should have known that he was breaching established infection control and prevention standards. It also alleges that staff at the dental clinic was inadequately trained to report breaches of care when they occurred.
According to the lawsuit:
As early as December 2015, the dental assistant assigned to Schiller was aware that he was using and re-using unsterile dental burs — bits used to cut or grind teeth — and reported that to the lead dental hygienist, who said she was “not in her supervisory chain” and needed to tell the chief of dental services.
The assistant had previously told the chief of dental services about Schiller’s poor hygiene, his failure to use personal protective equipment, and that he occasionally appeared to sleep at his desk, but no action was taken. She chose not to tell the chief of dental services about Schiller’s re-use of burs because she was afraid of retaliation.
In mid-October 2016, a substitute hygienist saw Schiller using an unsterile dental bur on a patient, and reported that to the acting chief of dental services, who later reported it to Tomah VA Medical Center managers. They confronted Schiller about the practice.
According to the Inspector General’s report, Schiller was suspended and resigned in December. An internal review found that he used unsterilized burs on about 112 of the 592 patients he saw over the course of a year, and used personal supplies on about 243 of them.
The lawsuit is the latest involving the VA Medical Center in Tomah. Last week, the government agreed to a $2.3 million settlement with the family of Jason Simcakoski, a former Marine who died in 2014 at the medical center in Tomah from a drug overdose that included opioid painkillers, which critics have said were overprescribed at the medical center.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge James Peterson approved the amount of the settlement, but asked that the structure of the payments to Simcakoski’s family be adjusted.