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House Veterans committee chairman accuses VA of dragging feet on Legionnaires' outbreak records

| Saturday, March 30, 2013, 12:04 a.m.
Chlorine treatments meant to stop dangerous bacteria that can lead to Legionnaires’ disease are eating away metal pipes across the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare’s plumbing system, threatening long-term damage that could cost millions to correct, an independent evaluation shows.
official photo
Rep. Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle

The Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to deliver key records to a House oversight subcommittee that's investigating a Legionnaires' outbreak in Pittsburgh, frustrating the review of five veterans' deaths and 16 patients sickened by the disease.

The House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations asked VA officials on Jan. 18 for internal files and email messages related to the outbreak, according to documents the Tribune-Review obtained. Lawmakers were waiting this week for records revealing how Pittsburgh VA workers monitored for the waterborne Legionella bacteria and how they responded.

“When the department drags its feet in providing information requested by Congress, it inhibits our ability to ensure America's veterans are receiving the care and benefits they have earned,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who chairs the full House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. “The veterans and family members affected by this outbreak deserve better, and our investigation will continue until we have a full accounting of the facts.”

VA officials have failed to respond in full to the Legionnaires' issue and a variety of other matters pursued by the House committee and its subcommittees since June 2012, the documents show. As of March 15, committee officials were waiting for about 40 unfulfilled requests that were at least a month old.

But more than a third of outstanding requests since June seek materials the VA shared with the committee, national VA spokesman Mark Ballesteros said. Concerning the Legionnaires' outbreak, he said congressional aides did not specify until Tuesday that they want nine specific records from the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System as part of the overall requests.

Those nine records should reveal such details as written plans for Legionnaires' prevention, annual results of disease screening in patients and past maintenance of the water systems at the Oakland and O'Hara campuses. Ballesteros said his department is compiling the information.

“VA receives a large volume of requests for information and strives to provide accurate responses in an appropriate amount of time,” Ballesteros said. He said the VA answered 43 questions, conducted 10 briefings and supplied “numerous documents” in response to congressional requests about the outbreak.

The House VA oversight subcommittee announced on Jan. 24 that it would look into the outbreak, expanding on work by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Contaminated water at the two VA hospitals led to the cases of Legionnaires,' a form of potentially deadly pneumonia, between February 2011 and November 2012, the CDC found.

The Pittsburgh VA did not recognize “for an extended period” that tap water was making patients sick, one of several shortcomings identified in a CDC report.

“The VA has promised complete cooperation with this (congressional) inquiry, and I fully expect them to live up to that promise,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, who worked with Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, to seek the House inquiry. They want to know whether the Pittsburgh VA followed standards for water monitoring and response to prevent repeat outbreaks.

“I'm confident that the committee will hold the VA accountable for any failure to cooperate,” Doyle said.

Other investigations of the Pittsburgh outbreak include a review by the VA Office of Inspector General, which was sought by Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton. David J. Hickton, the U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania, pledged that his office will conduct a review when the inspector general's findings are released, now forecast for mid- to late-April.

“I don't know why I had to ask for an inspector general's report. That causes me a lot of concern, that they didn't automatically say, ‘We have a problem. We need someone outside of our operation to look at this,'” Casey said. “I had to ask for it and, in a sense, demand it.”

Sandy Riley, 60, of Swissvale said she wouldn't be surprised if VA officials were holding back information from the House subcommittee. Her brother Lloyd “Mitch” Wanstreet, 65, of Jeannette died on July 4 of a Legionella infection after an extended stay at the VA Pittsburgh.

“Obviously, they're trying to delay the whole issue, hoping people have forgotten about it — which I don't think is going to happen,” Riley said.

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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