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State denies influenza killed more than three dozen at Hollidaysburg veterans' home

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By Adam Smeltz
Monday, July 22, 2013, 11:06 p.m.

State Department of Military and Veterans Affairs officials broke with policy on Monday and lashed out at assertions in a civil suit filed by a former medical director and a former nurse alleging as many as 38 influenza deaths at its Blair County veterans home.

“Although it is our general policy not to comment on any details on pending legal matters, we can firmly say we do not agree” with the claims, Agency Deputy Adjutant General Jerry G. Beck Jr. wrote in a letter to the Tribune-Review. The department “is confident the facts developed in the litigation will support its position, and we remain committed to providing high-quality care to residents at all of our veterans homes.”

The pending lawsuit against the department alleges that an influenza outbreak in the state-run Hollidaysburg Veterans Home in January and February was preventable.

Beck said the state Department of Health reviewed and supported the home's efforts to contain the outbreak.

Beck said flu was listed as a cause of death for a single resident, rejecting allegations in the July 12 suit filed in Commonwealth Court that more than three dozen patients might have died of influenza. The 514-bed home has passed all its inspections, remains in good standing with state and federal monitors and received the highest possible rating June 28 from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, he wrote.

A former medical director at the home, Dr. John M. Vasil of Northern Cambria, joined former nurse Laura O'Farrell of Duncansville and her nursing agency, Adara Healthcare Staffing, in filing the suit in Harrisburg. Vasil and O'Farrell allege the department illegally fired them Jan. 14 for raising alarms about the flu outbreak and other concerns at the facility, one of six state-run veterans homes in Pennsylvania.

The 19-page suit seeks a jury trial and claims an array of issues beyond the influenza outbreak, including alleged failures by the home to perform necessary medical tests, to provide appropriate medication and to offer a choice for hospice care.

Problems reached a critical point in January, the suit claims, when officials of the home failed to follow Vasil's guidance in responding to the flu outbreak.

A quicker and more thorough approach in quarantining parts of the home could have stopped some illnesses, the suit contends.

The state has yet to file response documents with the court.

Joan Nissley, a spokeswoman for the state Military and Veterans Affairs department, said that the home followed standard procedures and that laboratory tests confirmed a total of six cases of influenza — a fraction of the possible maximum figure claimed in the suit. She said 29 residents were tested for the flu before widespread treatments with Tamiflu medication began in the home.

The state Department of Health is staying out of the fray. Spokeswoman Kait Gillis said the department is aware of the reported outbreak but cannot publicly release information about individual facilities.

Vasil and O'Farrell's Downtown-based attorney, Neil Gregorio, questioned how vigorously the scope of the outbreak at the state-run home was investigated. He called the state figures “fundamentally wrong” and said the comments on Monday by state officials are intended to put a positive spin on the facts.

“I don't doubt that they can pass their periodic inspections. It doesn't change the fact that (the facility) could have passed those tests and gotten other stuff wrong,” Gregorio said.

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

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