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Outbreak of Legionnaires' disease destroyed vets' trust in VA system

| Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, 11:38 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Vietnam veteran Jeff Pope, 73 of Plum reacts as fellow veterans comment on the Legionnaires’ outbreak in the Pittsburgh VA system during a town hall meeting at the American Legion post in Squirrel Hill Monday.

The fatal outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that shook the Pittsburgh VA hospital system didn't just claim lives.

It rattled public confidence in the hospital system, stoking equal parts of fear and anger, veterans said at an American Legion meeting on Monday night in Squirrel Hill.

“I didn't find out about it until after the fact, and it was a shock,” said James M. Page III, 64, of Mt. Washington, a Vietnam-era Army veteran who joined others in calling for new VA leadership in Pittsburgh. “It's a lack of trust in the way the system is working. You want to trust the VA, but higher-ups wouldn't let the truth be known.”

David P. Cord, deputy director of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, did not directly address the cover-up claims after the meeting, deferring instead to an open criminal investigation. He said the VA could explore better communication methods and “stands ready” to respond to the investigation's findings.

About 35 people attended the gathering at American Legion Post 577, a first step in a review of the Pittsburgh VA system by Legion executives visiting from Washington.

They will spend Tuesday and part of Wednesday reviewing programs at the VA hospital in Oakland, including how it prevents Legionnaires', said Jacob Gadd, deputy director of health care for the American Legion.

He said the visit “will give us first-hand knowledge” of how the hospital prevents the disease, a form of pneumonia spread through waterborne Legionella bacteria. It's blamed in at least five deaths and 16 non-fatal illnesses during 2011 and 2012 in the Pittsburgh VA system.

The outbreak — and five-figure performance bonuses received simultaneously by local VA executives — led American Legion officials to include the Pittsburgh VA in their review of 15 VA hospitals across the country, said Ron Conley, an American Legion board member and former national commander. He said they will review the VA Butler Healthcare System and delays in a $75 million center there.

“We want to make sure that the treatment of veterans is 100 percent, besides the Legionnaires' disease, and (see) how they're trying to get it under control,” said Conley, who doubles as Allegheny County director of veterans affairs. He spoke in his American Legion role.

The organization has been performing annual reviews for a decade, picking some medical centers at random and targeting others with well-documented problems. Findings from the Pittsburgh visit should be published in August.

The Legionnaires' outbreak and its handling remain the target of a criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office for Western Pennsylvania and the VA Office of Inspector General in Washington. A House subcommittee is investigating, as well.

A regional director supervising the Pittsburgh VA and nearby health systems, Michael Moreland, announced his retirement in October after months of public criticism. Gary W. Devansky succeeded Moreland last week.

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

or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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