Workers at Pittsburgh VA say claims in limbo
By Adam Smeltz
Published: Saturday, July 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
At least five VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System workers believe they fell ill from a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed five patients and sickened 16 other veterans between February 2011 and November 2012, an employees' union leader confirmed.
The American Federation of Government Employees Local 2028 helped those workers file written claims through the Department of Labor this year seeking the restoration of lost sick time and reimbursement for out-of-pocket medical expenses, local AFGE President Kathi Dahl told the Tribune-Review.
The five employees spent from one to five weeks fighting their illnesses. All recovered, she said.
Months later, Dahl said their complaints remain unresolved. She said she suspects more workers in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System filed similar claims without union knowledge or support. She said the VA has yet to disclose how many employees complained of illnesses.
In a written statement Saturday, VA Pittsburgh CEO Terry Gerigk Wolf said she doesn't know why the claims are taking so long to process. She didn't provide the number of claims, but said the information would have to come from the VA's human resource department.
But VA administrators will share claims data with the union promptly, Wolf said.
“We have actively encouraged employees who felt that they had pneumonia to step forward and initiate the claims process,” she said.
She noted the VA is “dedicated to assisting any employee with this issue until all claims are processed.”
The Department of Labor had no comment.
“There's a lot of employees who are afraid. They don't want to say anything” for fear of retaliation, said Lewis Wilson, 59, of Ardara, an AFGE member, Navy veteran and 25-year VA Pittsburgh worker.
Wilson said he spent five days in July 2012 at Forbes Regional Hospital in Monroeville after coming down with pneumonia that he believes was Legionnaires' disease, a severe form of the respiratory ailment that results from inhaling mist or water contaminated with Legionella bacteria.
Wilson's share of his medical bills reached $777 — a debt he's paying off. He said he wants only reimbursement for the expenses and restoration of his leave time.
It was only after waiting weeks for answers from the Labor Department and VA that Wilson said he agreed to talk with the Trib. The Labor Department accepted his complaint, but he said he hasn't received money for his medical bills.
Other VA workers could not be reached for comment.
Dahl said the Labor Department denied one of the other four claims. She said that worker plans to appeal.
“All I want is what they should've given me,” said Wilson, who has worked as a nursing assistant and for a mental health unit at the VA. “I know I got (sick) at the VA. I go from home to work, work to home.”
Wilson said he became ill within about two weeks after transferring last summer to the VA University Drive campus in Oakland — the epicenter of the Legionnaires' outbreak — from the VA Highland Drive campus, which the VA is phasing out.
Doctors may never know with certainty whether Wilson and other VA workers who say they were sickened with pneumonia and pneumonia-like symptoms had Legionnaires' disease or where they contracted their illnesses. By the time the VA confirmed the Legionnaires' outbreak in November 2012, Dahl has said, it was too late for medical tests to retroactively detect the disease.
Legionella bacteria can cause the disease when inhaled as contaminated mist from shower faucets, fountains or other fixtures.
The elderly and people with compromised immune systems are especially susceptible.
Dahl said the five employees pursuing claims worked at the Oakland campus when VA leaders disclosed the outbreak.
Some VA officials knew as early as 2007 that Legionella was in water lines at campuses in Oakland and O'Hara, according to VA records obtained as part of a Trib investigation.
“We serve the veterans and everybody is focused on that. But the employees are not being looked at. They're just collateral damage,” Dahl said.
CDC officials did not review VA water testing records for years before the suspected start of the outbreak in February 2011.
The Trib reported those records show Legionella reached alarming levels on four occasions from September 2007 to July 2010 at the Oakland campus, leaving open the possibility that others might have been sickened or died earlier.
The Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General in Washington, a congressional oversight subcommittee and the U.S. Attorney's Office for Western Pennsylvania are investigating the outbreak and its handling.
Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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