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Legionella bacteria found at Altoona VA hospital but officials say water safe

House approves Rothfus amendment to cut VA bonuses

A federal spending bill should block performance bonuses for senior executives in the Department of Veterans Affairs as a result of a major backlog of veterans' disability claims and appeals identified by the Tribune-Review, Rep. Keith Rothfus said on Tuesday.

House members passed an amendment that Rothfus, R-Edgewood, offered on the House floor, arguing any bonuses to VA executives for that “abysmal performance is ridiculous.”

“In the private sector, this level of performance achievement is rewarded with a pink slip, not a bonus check,” Rothfus said.

The amendment would prevent any taxpayer money from going to the bonuses under the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill for 2014. The federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Rothfus cited a Trib investigation that found the VA takes nearly three years on average to make decisions on appeals in benefits and medical claims. The Trib identified almost 3,000 cases since 2009 in which veterans or their spouses died before the VA issued decisions on their disputed claims.

Meanwhile, VA senior executives received bonuses totaling $2.8 million in 2011 and $2.3 million in 2012, Rothfus said. The Trib found senior executives in the Pittsburgh VA Healthcare System received five-figure performance bonuses as recently as fiscal year 2011, during a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires' disease.

“VA executives need to take responsibility, fix these problems and do their jobs,” Rothfus said.

— Tribune-Review

Tuesday, June 4, 2013, 11:39 p.m.

Waterborne Legionella bacteria found in Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities in Pittsburgh, Butler and North Franklin turned up last month in a VA hospital in Blair County, the VA confirmed Tuesday.

But VA spokeswoman Andrea R. Young said the strain discovered at the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona does not cause Legionnaires' disease — unlike the bug identified in a deadly outbreak in Pittsburgh in 2011 and 2012. She said water test results on May 28 showed no Legionella pneumophila, the bacteria type blamed in more than 90 percent of reported Legionnaires' cases.

“Our water is currently safe and has been safe to use and drink,” Young told the Tribune-Review in an email, the preferred form of communications by VA spokespeople. She said the Altoona VA flushed its water system May 29 with superheated water and injected chlorine to destroy the bacteria.

Young said the facility has had no reported Legionnaires' cases related to the contamination, which she identified as Legionella anisa. That type of the bacteria is common in water supplies and causes illness rarely, likely accounting for fewer than 1 percent of all Legionnaires' cases, said Janet Stout, a former VA microbiologist who runs the Special Pathogens Laboratory, Uptown.

Still, the discovery at the Altoona hospital rattled the American Federation of Government Employees, a national union that represents 570 workers there and nearly 8,900 in Veterans Integrated Service Network 4. The Pittsburgh-based VA service region includes medical centers and clinics in most of Pennsylvania and all or parts of five neighboring states.

In a May 31 letter obtained by the Trib, AFGE General Counsel David A. Borer asked the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate the presence of Legionella in VA facilities across Pennsylvania.

“The fact that this is continuing to recur — we thought there needs to be a second set of eyes on this,” AFGE lawyer J. Ward Morrow told the Trib. “The question for us is not specifically this situation (in Altoona) but the fact that this keeps happening, and it keeps happening in Pennsylvania.”

Borer, in his letter, argued workers and patients need assurance that the VA provides a safe environment. He said VISN4 and its director, Michael Moreland, seem to have failed in keeping healthy facilities and in maintaining systems designed to prevent Legionella.

OSHA spokesman Jesse Lawder said Borer's request is under review. VISN4 spokesman David Cowgill did not respond Tuesday to Trib calls and emails for comment.

Meanwhile, AFGE officials cited several known Legionella incidents in VISN4. The Pittsburgh VA outbreak reported from February 2011 to November 2012 sickened as many as 21 veterans at the Oakland and O'Hara campuses, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Five of them died, and the outbreak remains under review by the VA Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania and a congressional subcommittee.

The VA Butler Healthcare campus announced in December it discovered Legionella but had identified no Legionnaires' cases in connection with the finding. A VA outpatient clinic at Washington Crown Center mall in North Franklin disclosed on May 16 that it, too, found low levels of the bacteria. No related Legionnaires' cases have been reported there, either.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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