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House bill introduced to require VA reporting of Legionnaires' and other infectious diseases

| Monday, April 29, 2013, 4:57 p.m.

A House bill introduced on Monday would force Veterans Affairs hospitals nationwide to alert state health agencies to cases of infectious disease, closing a reporting loophole exposed by a fatal outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Pittsburgh.

The bill from U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican who chairs the oversight subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, is similar to legislation planned in the Senate by Scranton Democrat Bob Casey Jr. However, Casey's legislation would also require notification of county health officials.

“Requiring VA to follow state guidelines for infectious-disease reporting is just a common-sense thing to do,” Coffman said in a prepared statement. “Our VA hospitals should be held to the same infectious-disease reporting standards as private hospitals, and this bill will help to ensure that.”

From February 2011 to November 2012, as many as 21 veterans contracted Legionnaires' disease from bacteria-contaminated water at the VA medical campuses in Oakland and O'Hara, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found. Five of the patients died.

VA officials “could have and probably should have” shared information more readily with public health agencies during the outbreak, acting state Secretary of Health Michael Wolf told the Tribune-Review.

A Trib investigation found VA hospitals, as federal facilities, fall outside state health rules that require other hospitals to report cases of infectious diseases, although many VA facilities comply voluntarily.

Acting Allegheny County Health Director Ronald Voorhees said he supports a consistent reporting mandate for VA hospitals that would require VA officials to follow state and county or local disclosure standards in their respective regions.

“I think it should be tailored to fit the normal reporting requirements that other hospitals in the same vicinity would meet,” said Voorhees, whose department requires disclosures from local hospitals to county officials. The Trib found that standards can vary from county to county and state to state.

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said he, Casey and other Pennsylvania lawmakers are collaborating on a separate legislative measure that's similar in principle to Coffman's bill. It could be complete as soon as next week and may include a single VA standard for disease disclosures, including reporting to county-level health agencies, he said.

“More transparency is better,” Doyle said. “We want to set a standard that everybody follows so that it's one standard, (and) everybody understands the standard.”

He said other Pennsylvania lawmakers involved include Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Allentown, and Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Keith Rothfus, R-Edgewood.

“The quicker the health department gets onto these cases, the lesser the risk of other patients acquiring these diseases. We lessen the risk of transmissibility as soon as we identify them,” said Phenelle Segal, president of Infection Control Consulting Services in Delray Beach, Fla., and a former infection prevention analyst for the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority.

VA representatives would not comment Monday on Coffman's legislation, but national department spokesman Mark Ballesteros said VA leaders “continue to be directly engaged” with Congress on Legionnaires' prevention efforts.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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