VA 'stakeholders' invited to session on Legionnaires' disease prevention efforts
By Adam Smeltz
Published: Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 11:51 p.m.
Pittsburgh VA officials have asked congressional aides and veterans groups to an invitation-only “open house” event next week to show what's being done to prevent patients from contracting potentially deadly Legionnaires' disease.
VA leaders will conduct a tour, discuss Legionnaires' prevention efforts and “correct misinformation being reported by the media,” according to an invitation sent to elected officials that the Tribune-Review obtained.
David Cowgill, chief spokesman for the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, declined to elaborate Wednesday on the claim about media misinformation or release a list of the invitees. He said an afternoon gathering for reporters would follow the event at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the VA campus in O'Hara.
“We are hosting an informational session for our stakeholders, and this includes congressional offices, to discuss specific agenda items in regards to Legionella control and our continued efforts to create the safest health care environment possible for our nation's heroes to heal,” Cowgill wrote in an email. “This session is one of several that we have hosted to help keep our stakeholders informed.”
The offices of Reps. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills; Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair; and Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, and Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Allentown, and Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, confirmed they will send representatives.
At least five patients died among the 21 veterans who the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined definitely or probably contracted Legionnaires' disease at the VA's University Drive hospital in Oakland and H.J. Heinz campus in O'Hara in 2011 and 2012. The CDC found water in the Pittsburgh VA had elevated levels of Legionella, the common bacteria that can cause the severe form of pneumonia when inhaled as mist from shower heads or other fixtures.
A Trib investigation this month found more veterans could have fallen ill from contamination at the VA Oakland hospital without having been documented as Legionnaires' patients. Elevated levels of Legionella bacteria were found in testing at least seven times at the hospital from 2007 to 2011, according to records the Trib obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request.
It wasn't until November 2012 that Pittsburgh VA officials publicly announced the outbreak and mandated a Legionnaires' test for pneumonia patients.
VA officials have for months declined requests for interviews and provided limited information for publication, ignoring phone calls that might require them to respond to questions about Legionella. Cowgill typically responds to Trib questions by email and ignores some questions.
Ron Conley, director of veterans affairs for Allegheny County, said the VA in the past “tried to lessen the bad publicity they've had by having meetings like this.” He praised the VA Pittsburgh's overall track record for health care but expressed concern about the Legionnaires' outbreak.
“These incidents tarnish their image. I'd like to see that get fixed,” he said.
Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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