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VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System: No wrongdoing in outbreak of Legionnaires

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By Luis Fábregas and Mike Wereschagin
Tuesday, March 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System said an internal investigation so far has found no evidence of wrongdoing at its facilities during an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease tied to five deaths, and apologized to veterans and families affected by the incident.

The emailed statement to the Tribune-Review cautioned that “reviews are ongoing” — a reference to national VA and Inspector General probes. It emphasized that local VA officials continue to take steps to control the Legionella bacteria and protect the safety of veterans.

“We sincerely apologize to any veterans and families who have been impacted by Legionella contracted at our facilities, and we will continue to do everything we can to keep the veterans we serve safe,” said the statement issued by Pittsburgh VA spokesman Dave Cowgill.

Cowgill released the statement in response to questions submitted by the Trib to the VA's top leaders, including Dr. Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health of the Veterans Health Administration and top aides to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Those officials did not respond directly and Cowgill's statement continued a pattern of local and regional VA officials ignoring questions the Trib has posed about the outbreak — despite a claim in the statement that the VA has been transparent.

In fact, VA officials have said little about the outbreak, which sickened as many as 21 veterans at the Oakland and O'Hara campuses between January 2011 and November 2012. Legionella bacteria also were found in a building at the VA Butler campus, but officials reported no cases there of Legionnaires', a form of pneumonia.

Records show the VA was aware of two cases within four months in 2011, which is within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended six-month range for action, but local VA officials did not tell the public it had a problem until mid-November 2012.

The statement said VA Pittsburgh officials are cooperating with the national VA Office of Inspector General, which is expected to issue a report this month.

“We're looking for answers, not just an apology,” said Judy Nicklas, daughter-in-law of William Nicklas, 87, a Navy veteran of World War II who died Nov. 23. She said “it's nice” the VA apologized but it's not enough.

Judy Nicklas, 55, of Adams and her family have expressed frustration at what they say is a lack of answers from the VA. The family has announced plans to sue.

Sandy Riley, 60, of Swissvale, whose brother Navy veteran Lloyd “Mitchell” Wanstreet, 65, of Jeannette died July 4 of a Legionella infection, said the apology is too little, too late.

“They're apologizing, but obviously that doesn't bring our families back,” said Riley, whose brother died at the VA's Oakland campus on University Drive after an extended stay at the Heinz campus in O'Hara for a leg ailment. “An apology isn't enough. It's just frustrating.”

Cowgill said a team of clinical and environmental experts from the Veterans Health Administration conducted a review of practices and protocols at the Pittsburgh VA but would not say when the review took place.

Cowgill said the VA submitted action plans to address recommendations made by the Joint Commission, a watchdog and major accreditor of hospitals nationwide that conducted an unannounced survey of the University Drive hospital campus on Dec. 18.

The Joint Commission asked the VA to “map its plumbing system in order to identify stagnation risks posed by dead-end sections of plumbing,” Cowgill said. The watchdog also recommended changes to the way the VA samples and tests its water systems.

The Joint Commission did not respond to a request for comment. Cowgill said the Joint Commission on March 1told the VA that “evidence of standard compliance has been accepted and no further response was required.”

Staff writer Adam Smeltz contributed to this report. Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or

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