On a warm November day in 2017, Representative Mark Takano, a California Democrat, met with a whistleblower who had serious concerns about the 270-bed Veterans Affairs facility in Loma Linda. Later that day, Takano took a tour of the hospital, and was shocked by what he saw. Grime encrusted the water fountains; the floors of the operating room were noticeably dirty. Takano called for the VA’s inspector general to launch an investigation, which found “inconsistent levels of cleanliness” in the main hospital building, and unwashed floors, dusty cabinets, and a sterile instrument resting on a dirty rack in the inpatient dental unit. The rate of infection among Loma Linda’s patients was higher than the agency average, and the housekeeping department was largely incapacitated by high turnover, poor pay, and shaky management. A separate investigation found the bacteria Legionella pneumophila, which causes Legionnaires’ disease, in the water supply—a discovery that the facility had failed to communicate to clinicians.
Today, in the midst of a pandemic that threatens everyone, but especially people with preexisting conditions, including the many veterans who suffer respiratory illnesses likely brought on by exposure to Agent Orange and burn pits, problems with cleanliness at VA facilities endure. For nearly two decades, the agency’s federal watchdog has uncovered filthy conditions at facilities across the country. The problem is due, at least in part, to the fact that 40 percent of all VA hospitals suffered from severe shortages of housekeeping staff in fiscal year 2019—the most recent data available. More than 2,000 cleaning positions are vacant across the VA’s national network, according to granular workforce data released by the agency in late May. And despite Takano’s spotlighting of issues in Loma Linda, the facility still has 21 unfilled housekeeper positions.