(WASHINGTON)—The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs invited AFGE Local 2028 President Kathleen Dahl to testify before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in its efforts to analyze the Department of Veterans Affairs’ actions regarding the Legionnaires’ outbreak at a VA medical facility in Pittsburgh, Pa. Dahl has served as Local 2028 president since 2011 and represents approximately 2,500 VA employees at the University Drive and Heinz facilities within the Pittsburgh VA Healthcare System. These employees include building maintenance workers, health care professionals providing direct care to veterans and support personnel who handle patient appointments, records and other functions.
“As a Local president, it is my duty and privilege to ensure that all of our employees are provided a safe working environment,” said Dahl. “Since learning about the recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, I have addressed concerns about protective equipment, timely notices to our employees about exposures and proper care, and testing and treatment when exposure occurs.”
Last November the VA announced five veterans had contracted Legionnaires’ disease at its University Drive facility in Pittsburgh, Pa. and that one of the patients later died. In subsequent months, media reports indicated the agency was aware of elevated levels of the Legionella bacteria in the water system more than a year before the outbreak. Several employees, who experienced flu-like symptoms similar to those associated with Legionnaires disease, also were tested for the disease. However, the results could not directly tie their illnesses to the outbreak. During the hearing, Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Coffman (Colo.) quoted a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that indicated five patients have died since 2011 as a result of contracting Legionnaires’ disease.
“Local 2028 President Dahl has done a tremendous job in advising employees of Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines and advocating for the proper protections for veterans and employees,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. “Ms. Dahl is courageous for her testimony, considering management at the facility suggested that she could ‘get sick’ in order to keep from testifying. Our members risk intimidation and retaliation when testifying before Congress or speaking to the media, but the union is here to protect them every step of the way.”
“This hearing shed some light on the sequence of events that led to the outbreak but many questions were left unanswered because VA leadership sent figureheads to the hearing, instead of those with detailed knowledge as to how this outbreak was handled. It is very clear the VA has grossly mismanaged this outbreak and should be held accountable for the negligence that has taken place. VISN 4 Director Michael Moreland also must be held responsible for the lack of oversight and appropriate actions, which appears to have led to the deaths of American veterans, and for the continued retaliation against VISN 4 employees who speak up for their patients,” said Cox.
“The front-line perspective of our members is critical to the investigation of this outbreak and the request of Ms. Dahl’s testimony before the House is indicative of the crucial role labor plays in providing the best care for our nation’s veterans,” said AFGE District 3 National Vice President Keith Hill. “We’ve worked closely to obtain the latest information and advise employees on how to handle the outbreak. The health and well-being of our nation’s heroes is of the utmost importance and we can ill-afford to put their health at risk. It is extremely troubling that the VA dodged important questions about the timely notification of the outbreak to patients and employees and its history of properly maintaining its water systems to prevent this type of outbreak.”
Rep. Coffman admonished the VA for its lack of due diligence in effectively monitoring the Legionella bacteria within the water system at the University Drive campus in order to prevent this outbreak, and warned that the agency would be “scrutinized” for any attempts to intimidate and/or retaliate against employees who voice concerns over the administration of patient care.