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Top VA health official ignores questions about Pittsburgh deaths; Casey asks for CDC probe into possible sixth death

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By Mike Wereschagin and Luis Fábregas
Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 12:06 a.m.

WASHINGTON — The top health official in the Department of Veterans Affairs ignored questions on Tuesday about a lethal Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System as members of Congress called for a wider investigation.

“I have a meeting,” Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA's undersecretary of health, told a Tribune-Review reporter when approached with questions about the multi-year outbreak that killed at least five veterans and sickened at least 16 others between February 2011 and November 2012.

When the Trib reporter asked what he had to say to veterans concerned that the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System continues to be run by those who presided over the outbreak — and received tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses for their performance during that time — Petzel stared straight ahead and would not acknowledge the question. He did the same thing when asked what he would say to veterans who say they fear going to the VA for treatment because of the outbreak's handling.

The exchange took place in The National Press Club, where Petzel spent about an hour touting the VA's planned technological upgrades. VA spokesman Mark Ballesteros later said it was “not the venue” for those questions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked the VA Pittsburgh outbreak to five deaths, but a Trib investigation and Congressional leaders suggest the number could be higher. The Trib found VA and CDC officials did not review water quality testing records which showed alarmingly high levels of Legionella bacteria in the water system dating back to at least 2007. The CDC declined the Trib's offer to review the records, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Sen. Robert P. Casey, D-Scranton, asked CDC Director Tom Frieden by letter to investigate whether the death of a sixth veteran can be tied to the outbreak.

Navy veteran Frank “Sonny” Calcagno, 85, died Nov. 22, 2011. Although he died in Forbes Regional Hospital in Monroeville, Calcagno spent six weeks at VA Pittsburgh facilities at Highland Drive and in Oakland, said his daughter, Debbie Balawejder of Monroeville.

“Someone needs to be held accountable, because no one told us anything,” Balawejder told the Trib. “I just want somebody to find out what happened.”

Balawejder described her father as an independent man who drove a car, paid his bills and worked as a bagger at a grocery store. Calcagno had diabetes and took several medications that his daughter said made him feel ill in the summer of 2011.

Calcagno was admitted to the VA's Highland Drive facility on Aug. 28, 2011. He stayed there for about six weeks until he was transferred to the VA Oakland hospital because he was coughing and had a fever. He was discharged on Oct. 20.

Balawejder said the family was told Calcagno had pneumonia but no one mentioned Legionnaires', a type of pneumonia people can get by breathing in mist from water that contains Legionella bacteria.

David Cowgill, a spokesman for the VA Pittsburgh, said in an email that the CDC determined Calcagno acquired Legionella at a non-VA facility, with an onset date of Nov. 5. The CDC used an expanded incubation criteria of 14 days to determine that the earliest day Calcagno became infected would have been Oct. 22, when he was in Forbes Regional, he wrote.

“We did not make the determinations,” Cowgill wrote. “We do not have any reason to believe that the classifications provided in the CDC report are inaccurate in any way.”

The CDC could not provide answers to the Trib's questions on Tuesday.

On the day Calcagno was discharged from the VA, his family took him to Forbes after he fell getting out of the car and hurt his head.

“He was a mess,” Balawejder said. “He lost 30 pounds. He was short of breath. I told him, ‘They (the VA) should've never let you leave.'”

Doctors at Forbes were the first to mention the possibility of Legionnaires', Balawejder said. They told her the disease had been noted on Calcagno's chart.

Dan Laurent, a spokesman for Forbes, said officials at the Monroeville hospital concluded the patient was not exposed to the bacteria there based on evidence that included “negative water testing for Legionella and no other Legionella cases at the time.”

Mike Wereschagin and Luis Fábregas are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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