VA meets families hurt by outbreak in Pittsburgh

| Saturday, March 16, 2013, 10:30 p.m.

A year and eight months after Navy veteran John J. Ciarolla died, top VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System officials met last week with his family to apologize and to report that he probably contracted the deadly Legionella bacteria inside one of their hospitals.

VA Pittsburgh spokesman David Cowgill confirmed “institutional disclosure” meetings are being offered to all patients and/or their family members affected by the Legionnaires' disease outbreak here. As many as 21 veterans were sickened from February 2011 to November 2012 at the VA's Oakland and O'Hara campuses. Five of them died, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

The disclosures occur months after the CDC told VA Pittsburgh leadership on Oct. 30, 2012, that contaminated tap water made some patients sick. Delays in the VA's disclosures might make it tougher for families who want to file wrongful-death claims, said W. Robb Graham, a malpractice attorney from Cherry Hill, N.J., who specializes in VA cases. He does not represent anyone in the Pittsburgh outbreak. He said such claims need to be filed within two years of a death.

“In a situation of someone who's deceased, the reason for disclosure is not just the legal-liability aspect,” Graham said. “The families of these veterans have been wondering what they might have done that caused this. When the VA steps up to the plate and says, ‘We did it,' it would uncertainly unburden the families.”

Cowgill would not say why it took the hospital so long to disclose Legionnaires' was the likely cause of the July 2011 death of Ciarolla, 83, of North Versailles. He said patient privacy rules limited how much officials could comment publicly.

“I'm not going to criticize having the meetings. I question why they're having them all now when people have been contracting the bacteria for the last 18 to 20 months, admittedly on their (the VA's) end,” said Philadelphia attorney John N. Zervanos, who represents the Ciarolla family.

Zervanos told the Tribune-Review he believes the VA waited until the matter “hit the fan” publicly to offer the disclosure meetings.

National VA policy calls for medical officials to tell patients or their survivors as soon as possible about “adverse events,” including hospital conditions that might cause death or serious injury. In cases when dangers are spotted only after a death, the policy says “disclosure may be delayed to allow for a thorough investigation of the facts provided.

The policy does not, however, discuss how long it may be delayed.

Maureen Ciarolla, 60, of Monroeville said VA Pittsburgh CEO Terry Gerigk Wolf, chief of staff Ali Sonel and attorney Lisa Wolfe shared condolences with her family about the death of her father during an hourlong meeting on Wednesday.

VA officials did not admit any wrongdoing and no one who directly cared for her father was present to answer questions about his treatment, Ciarolla said.

Cowgill said that during any disclosure meetings the VA Pittsburgh holds, “all information available regarding questions veterans or their family members have are answered. We also offer the family the opportunity to call us back for any other questions they may have after the disclosure meeting.”

Around the time of her father's death, Ciarolla said VA workers had indicated that they had seen no other recent cases of Legionnaires'.

“They've never — until now — said that my father died of Legionnaires',” Ciarolla said. “My father's death certificate doesn't even say that.”

The elder Ciarolla's death certificate lists his cause of death as a complication from pneumonia. Legionnaires' is the second most common cause of pneumonia among patients in VA hospital intensive care units, according to a 2007 report from the VA Inspector General.

Within the past several weeks, Pittsburgh VA officials have contacted relatives of at least two other veterans who died of Legionnaires' disease at the Oakland hospital, family members reported.

Relatives of World War II Navy veteran William Nicklas, 87, of Hampton had a disclosure meeting with VA officials on Feb. 20, their attorney Harry S. Cohen said. He declined to talk about many specifics, but said VA officials did not comment on whether Nicklas was one of the five deaths cited by the CDC.

Neither the CDC nor the VA will publicly name the deceased, citing privacy laws.

As with the Nicklas and Ciarolla cases, the death of Navy veteran Lloyd “Mitch” Wanstreet, 65, of Jeannette aligns with an outbreak timeline at the VA cited in a Jan. 25 CDC report. His sister, Sandy Riley, 60, of Swissvale, said a VA worker called last month to arrange a discussion about Wanstreet's case and “what they're doing in the future.”

“I'm curious to see what they have to say about the whole thing, why they didn't mention he could've gotten it there at the (VA),” said Riley, who plans to consult an attorney before her April meeting with VA officials.

Staff writer Mike Wereschagin contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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