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House subcommittee to review Legionnaires' outbreak in Pittsburgh facility

| Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

The fatal Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System will come under new congressional scrutiny next month, with testimony expected in Washington from scientists, health experts and leadership in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

An investigative subcommittee at the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs scheduled a Feb. 5 hearing on the waterborne outbreak that is blamed in at least one veteran's death last year, said U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair. They sought the hearing to highlight standards for water purification, whether the Pittsburgh VA followed those standards and how to prevent repeat episodes, they said.

“The people who are responsible should be held accountable,” said Doyle, whose district includes the Oakland VA hospital at the center of the outbreak. “I'm prepared to let the experts do their job and let the chips fall where they may.”

A list of witnesses expected for the hearing was not available Thursday, though Doyle and Murphy said they anticipate testimony from the VA and experts in Legionnaires' prevention and water treatment.

The VA Office of Inspector General is doing a separate review of the Oakland outbreak and the control of Legionella bacteria at other VA hospitals, with findings expected in March.

Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, called for that review and better overall communication from the VA.

“I have to say it's improved, but the real proof will be over time in terms of how they take steps to prevent this from happening and make changes,” Casey said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is investigating, as well.

VA officials learned Wednesday of the House hearing plans, spokesman David Cowgill said. He said federal officials handling the inspector general review recently left Pittsburgh.

“A designee identified by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (Eric K. Shinseki) has been invited to testify” Feb. 5, Cowgill wrote via email. “VA's witness and testimony will be submitted in advance of the hearing.”

Tests found five patients contracted Legionnaires', a sometimes-fatal form of pneumonia, at the Pittsburgh VA. Four recovered.

The VA first announced the outbreak to the public on Nov. 16, about a week before World War II veteran William E. Nicklas, 87, of Hampton died of Legionnaires' at the Oakland hospital. His relatives believe he contracted the disease inside the facility and that his death was “very, very preventable,” attorney Harry S. Cohen said.

Cohen announced in December the Nicklas family plans a legal claim against the VA as a way to focus attention on the situation. Illinois manufacturer LiquiTech Environmental Solutions reported finding deficiencies in the Oakland hospital's water systems nearly 12 months before the VA revealed the outbreak, tentatively tied to contaminated tap water.

“There is reason to believe they (VA officials) were in a position to do something about this before Mr. Nicklas was even a patient there,” Cohen said on Thursday.

The Oakland hospital and the VA H.J. Heinz Campus in O'Hara switched to different water-treatment technology after finding Legionella in their water supplies. The bacteria cause Legionnaires' disease.

Murphy said lawmakers will use the inspector general's findings and House hearing testimony to explore future standards for guarding against Legionnaires'. The Oakland hospital reported 29 Legionnaires' cases between January 2011 and November 2012, with “extensive reviews” finding five began within the facility.

Eight developed elsewhere, and 16 have unknown origins, the VA reported.

“Keep in mind these (Legionella) can live in any hospital system,” Murphy said. “But this is a federal facility for our veterans. We want to know that veterans can go into a hospital and trust that everything's in place to keep them healthy and not make them worse.”

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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