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Senate committee OKs bill requiring VA to disclose Legionnaires', other outbreaks

| Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, 1:15 p.m.

The Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs has reached bipartisan agreement on proposed legislation to toughen disease reporting standards at veterans hospitals nationwide in response to a fatal Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Pittsburgh.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, introduced a proposal in May. The outbreak in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System apparently went undetected for nearly two years. At least five veterans died, and 16 others were sickened, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

“No one piece of legislation can bring back a loved one or fully account for the pain that these families experienced in the last few years,” Casey said in announcing the agreement on Friday. “What this legislation will do is take significant steps toward reforming VA policies so what occurred at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System never happens again.”

Under the legislation, called the Improving Quality of Care Within the Department of Veterans Affairs Act of 2013, VA hospitals would need to follow disease disclosure standards that apply to state-licensed hospitals across the country. Pennsylvania requires most hospitals to report many infectious-disease cases, including Legionnaires' cases, to state health officials within 24 hours of diagnosis.

But a Tribune-Review investigation found VA hospitals run by the federal government typically are not licensed by state health officials. The Trib found that VA Pittsburgh officials delayed notifying the Department of Health's reporting system in at least one-third of the outbreak-linked Legionnaires' cases in 2011 and 2012.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., is the lead GOP sponsor of the disease reporting legislation, which would hold regional VA directors accountable for disclosing certain infectious diseases and require an independent review of the structure of VA medical centers.

Asked for comment, national VA spokesman Phil Budahn emphasized an agency directive in June that orders voluntary compliance with local and state disease reporting rules where VA hospitals operate.

Lawmakers including Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, have introduced similar legislation in the House. Casey hopes House and Senate members can craft and pass a unified bill by December, spokesman John Rizzo said.

Murphy and Doyle expressed optimism that the House will move swiftly.

“I'm hopeful that the action in the Senate provides some momentum for similar action over here,” Doyle said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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