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VA critics to testify in D.C.

| Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, 9:42 p.m.

Two outspoken critics of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System will testify in Washington on the hospital system's fatal Legionnaires' disease outbreak.

Former VA officials Dr. Victor L. Yu and Janet E. Stout, both well-known Pittsburgh experts in Legionnaires' prevention, agreed to appear as key witnesses in a Feb. 5 investigative hearing under the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, they confirmed. Yu said they received invitations from U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, the Colorado Republican who leads an investigative subcommittee.

U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, requested the hearing.

Stout and Yu founded the Special Pathogens Laboratory, Uptown, after the Department of Veterans Affairs closed their former lab in 2006 at the VA hospital in Oakland. They said little Monday about their planned Washington appearance, but both have argued the Legionnaires' outbreak last fall was preventable.

“By choosing the witnesses, the chairman (Coffman) obviously tilts the testimony” in a congressional hearing, said former U.S. Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who served 34 years. “It's done all the time. You get the witnesses who say what you want said.”

A complete witness list for the hearing was not available on Monday and Coffman's office did not respond to questions.

Lawmakers also should hear from the VA and experts in Legionnaires' prevention and water treatment, Doyle and Murphy said. The VA's testimony “will be submitted in advance of the hearing,” VA spokesman David Cowgill said.

“VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System remains committed to delivering the high-quality care our veterans have earned and deserve,” Cowgill wrote via email.

Coffman, the subcommittee chairman, “is really not about politics or grandstanding,” said Seth Lynn, director of the Center for Second Service at George Washington University.

Rather, he “tends to care about the right things — making sure veterans are taken care of,” Lynn said.

Doyle and Murphy said they expect the 10 a.m. gathering to focus on water-purification standards, whether the Pittsburgh VA followed those standards and how to prevent repeat episodes.

Tests found five patients in the Pittsburgh VA contracted Legionnaires', a waterborne form of pneumonia, inside the hospital system. Most recovered, but the Allegheny County Health Department reported one patient died of the ailment. County health officials have not released the name of the deceased.

The family of World War II veteran William E. Nicklas, 87, of Hampton believes his death on Nov. 23 was the fatality the health department confirmed. He died of Legionnaires' at the Oakland hospital about a week after the VA confirmed the outbreak publicly.

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. The hospital reported 29 total Legionnaires' cases between January 2011 and November 2012, though “extensive reviews” found only five began within the facility, according to the VA.

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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