If a veteran’s artificial hip or shoulder reconstruction gets recalled because of manufacturing problems, Veterans Affairs officials may not be able to notify them, according to a warning from a government watchdog released this week.

Investigators from the Government Accountability Office said despite widespread use of non-biological implantable medical devices among VA patients, the department lacks an effective tracking system for many of the items, leading to health and safety concerns.

“The Veterans Health Administration has not fully assessed its ability across all specialties to ensure that non-biological implantable medical devices can be effectively tracked back to individual patients,” GAO officials wrote in a report released Wednesday.

“Some VA medical center officials said that if they needed to identify patients affected by a safety issue with an orthopedic implantable device, it would require a time-consuming search of the medical records.”

Investigators noted that the problem does not extend to cardiac devices like pacemakers or implantable defibrillators, where such recalls and problems demand immediate attention. Those items are monitored and tracked meticulously by VA staffers, the GAO found.

But other medical devices are not accounted for in the same way. While the department tracks total numbers of items in use, the specific equipment is not stored in a database with the veteran using it, leaving a gap in information if problems arise.

VA officials said they implanted more than 1 million such devices in veteran patients from 2019 to 2023. The GAO said there have been four major recalls to hip replacements and other implantable orthopedic medical equipment in the last three years, although the actions covered fewer than 30,000 items nationwide.

Still, officials warned, “when an implantable medical device fails, the patient with that device can face serious health risks if the failure is not addressed.”

In a statement, VA officials promised to review the issue and address needed changes by March 2025. They also said that work may entail “establishing new national program offices or reorganizing current program offices” to conduct the work, which may require additional funding from Congress.

The full report is available online at the GAO website.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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