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Casey says VA insults families, taxpayers by not releasing probe results

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By Mike Wereschagin and Adam Smeltz
Tuesday, March 25, 2014, 5:24 p.m.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. contends it's “an insult” that the Department of Veterans Affairs has not released the results of two internal probes into a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak at Pittsburgh VA hospitals.

In a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on Tuesday asking him to release the internal VA reviews, Casey, D-Scranton, says he's concerned that recently disclosed emails paint a different picture of the outbreak than the explanations top VA officials gave in testimony before Congress. The emails show VA officials were concerned that human error — not a flawed water treatment system — might have led to the deadly outbreak.

“That alone is reason enough to really be, if you're a family member or taxpayer, insulted,” Casey told the Tribune-Review in an interview.

Asked for comment, the VA repeated the statement it has issued throughout the Legionnaires' scandal: “The Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to providing the best quality, safe and effective health care our veterans have earned and deserve.”

VA spokeswoman Ramona Joyce says the agency received Casey's letter and will respond formally to him.

The Legionnaires' outbreak sickened at least 22, six of whom died. The VA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the outbreak lasted from February 2011 to November 2012, though a Trib investigation showed alarmingly high levels of Legionella bacteria in water tests as far back as 2007.

VA officials had indicated to Congress that the water treatment system — which used copper and silver ions as a disinfectant — might have been inadequate. But a Trib investigation last year found workers weren't maintaining the system properly, nor were they following other antibacterial procedures. That reporting was confirmed recently by a Dec. 10, 2012, email from an official in VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel's office obtained by the newspaper.

Joyce says the VA wasn't alone in raising concerns about the treatment system. Dr. Lauri Hicks, a CDC epidemiologist, told Congress in February 2013 that tests showed Legionella growing in water with the correct levels of copper and silver ions.

The outbreak spurred a nationwide review of VA hospitals' Legionella-control procedures, an investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General, two criminal probes and several Congressional hearings. The criminal investigations concluded with no charges filed, and the VA has not announced any disciplinary actions. Several of the affected families are suing the VA in federal court in Pittsburgh.

“The problems that arose and the way they handled them really undermines confidence in the leadership of the VA,” Casey says. “I just hope other places in the country aren't going to experience the same problems.”

Mike Wereschagin and Adam Smeltz are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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