Casey, Doyle increase pressure on VA over Legionnaires’ outbreak

Rep. Mike Doyle said he wants the House Committee on Veterans Affairs to convene a hearing and look at “where systemic failures occurred.”

“It‘s not that the VA has been uncooperative. It‘s just that new questions keep coming up every day,” said Doyle, D-Forest Hills. “We‘re trying to get to the bottom of the scope of this. Is it five people? Is it 16 people?”

Tests found five people contracted Legionnaires‘ in the outbreak, tentatively linked to tainted tap water at the VA University Drive Campus in Oakland, according to the VA. One patient at the VA died, the Allegheny County Health Department reported.

An executive with the American Federation of Government Employees also has requested an investigation by Opfer‘s office. Four AFGE members who work at the Oakland hospital developed respiratory problems and have undergone testing for possible links to the Legionnaires‘ outbreak. It‘s not clear if results from those tests are complete.

In a Tuesday letter to Opfer, AFGE National President J. David Cox asked the inspector general‘s office to look at alleged retaliation against VA workers and AFGE activists by regional VA leadership.

More families think their loved ones may have died of Legionnaires‘ contracted at the Oakland hospital, Casey aides said. They heard from relatives of three people who died there in 2011 and 2012. Those families believe the outbreak may be to blame.

“We need to know what happened, why it happened” and how the VA will prevent it from happening again, Casey said.

The Oakland hospital had 29 total Legionnaires‘ cases between January 2011 and November 2012, though only five are known to have originated within the facility, according to the VA. It documented those cases between November 2011 and November 2012, spokesman David Cowgill has said.

At least eight of the 29 cases began in other locations, the VA reported. Origins of the others are unclear.

Casey said his worries center on the VA response to the outbreak, on hospital conditions and on public communications. The senator said he had yet to receive answers from VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on a dozen questions he submitted last week.

Casey said the VA‘s “lack of response, lack of access to information makes people like me skeptical.”

An Illinois manufacturer said it warned the Pittsburgh VA as early as December 2011 about problems with key water treatment systems in Oakland.

VA officials asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to assist with a Pittsburgh Legionnaires‘ outbreak in late October, though they did not inform the public until Nov. 16.

The Office of Inspector General is reviewing Casey‘s request and will work with his staff on the scope of the review, office spokeswoman Catherine Gromek said.

The VA is “preparing a formal response to Sen. Casey, which we are working to provide to his office as soon as possible,” spokesman Mark Ballesteros wrote via email.

Findings from a CDC investigation may be available in a few weeks. The CDC has been collaborating with the VA and county officials.

In the meantime, VA leaders “notified our entire health-care network of the Legionella bacteria” spotted in Pittsburgh-area facilities, the VA wrote Friday in a statement.

“Facility employees were notified of the situation and a hotline was activated to address related employee and veteran questions,” the statement added.

Neither the VA nor the CDC has specified all of the recommendations implemented at the Oakland hospital. It and the H.J. Heinz Campus near Aspinwall have switched to chlorination systems to treat their tap water. Both found Legionella in internal plumbing, which underwent a thorough cleaning last month.

A building at the VA Butler Healthcare campus on New Castle Road is undergoing a similar process because routine tests uncovered Legionella there this week.

Legionella is the bacteria that causes Legionnaires‘, a form of pneumonia that can be fatal in people with weak immune systems.

Doyle said he and Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, are collaborating to pursue the Pittsburgh outbreak before the House VA committee. He wants the committee to use “all tools available, including subpoena power,” in its review, Doyle wrote in a letter to committee leaders.

Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and ranking member Mike Michaud, D-Maine, pledged to follow through on the issue. Committee members will visit Pittsburgh facilities soon, Miller said.

Doyle‘s brother Patrick is a speech pathologist for the Pittsburgh VA, where he has worked for 33 years. Mike Doyle said the VA job predates his political career and presents no conflict of interest.

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