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Rothfus and two key House leaders pressure VA for Pittsburgh Legionnaires' records and emails

| Wednesday, April 3, 2013, 3:48 p.m.

U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, joined two key House members on Wednesday to pressure the Department of Veterans Affairs for critical documents sought in connection with a fatal outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Pittsburgh.

In a letter to President Obama and VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, Rothfus and Reps. Jeff Miller and Mike Coffman aired “grave concerns” over the VA's “lack of responsiveness.” Miller, R-Fla., is chairman of the full House Committee on Veterans' Affairs; Coffman, R-Colo., is chairman of its Oversight and Investigations subcommittee.

“The delays frustrate the ability of Congress to effectively conduct its essential oversight function and to ensure the care received by our veterans meets the highest standards,” the letter states. “Our veterans deserve the VA's complete candor, transparency and accountability, and we therefore respectfully request your immediate attention to this matter.”

In an email response, VA national spokesman Mark Ballesteros said the VA has responded to many congressional requests for information and would continue to do so.

The White House press office did not respond to Tribune-Review requests for comment.

The House Veterans' Affairs oversight subcommittee asked VA officials on Jan. 22 for all internal documents and email messages related to the Pittsburgh outbreak, according to the lawmakers' letter. The subcommittee sought anything since 2007 from the national VA office in Washington, the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and the Pittsburgh-based Veterans Integrated Service Network 4 regional office that mentions Legionella bacteria or Legionnaires' disease.

The organizations were to turn over the email messages by Feb. 12; everything else was due Jan. 29, lawmakers said.

But the VA so far “has furnished only a small fraction of the requested information,” the letter states. VA officials shared “a very limited number of documents” on March 21 and have “yet to produce a single email relating to the outbreak,” it adds.

“We are now well beyond any reasonable period” for turnover of the documents, Rothfus said.

As many as 21 veterans contracted Legionnaires' disease, a potentially deadly form of pneumonia, after being exposed to Legionella-contaminated water at Pittsburgh VA facilities in Oakland and O'Hara between February 2011 and November 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Five of those veterans died.

After failing to get the records, congressional aides on March 26 revised the request to demand that the VA turn over nine specific documents, Ballesteros told the Trib on Friday. Those documents would provide details such as written plans for Legionella prevention, annual results of disease screening and past maintenance records for the water systems.

Ballesteros said on Friday that the VA was compiling the information.

Other agencies reviewing the outbreak include the CDC and the VA Office of Inspector General, which is expected to release by late April an investigative report sought by Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton.

David J. Hickton, the U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania, has pledged his own independent review once the inspector general's report is complete.

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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