Legion national commander discusses issues facing vets during local stop

| Saturday, March 22, 2014, 9:26 p.m.

The revelation that the top physician in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System encouraged doctors to give bottled water to high-risk patients more than a year before the system disclosed dangerous Legionella bacteria levels in its tap water “highly disappointed” the national commander of the American Legion.

“I was not happy to hear that,” said Daniel M. Dellinger. “We try to be the watchdog for the VA. We are partners. We want to see everybody get the best care possible, but they have to have more accountability.”

The bacteria caused an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that killed at least five patients beginning in February 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Pittsburgh VA did not notify patients and the public until November 2012.

Dellinger, an Army veteran from Vienna, Va., met with area legion members Wednesday evening at Post 474 in Zelienople, where several people said it was important that veterans receive quality care through the VA, including the VA Butler Healthcare facility in Butler Township. The local stop was part of a tour in Pennsylvania to meet with veterans and discuss their needs.

“They do good with the care, but the time it takes to process claims is slow, so slow,” said Frank Frederick, 71, of Perry, Lawrence County, the Zelienople post commander and an Army veteran. The VA provides health care to more than 6.3 million veterans annually.

Dellinger said the VA seems to be focusing on ensuring the safety of its water supplies across the system. He said members of the Legion have been visiting facilities across the country as part of its System Worth Saving program, which issues reports on the VA system. One of the first things VA staff provide them are water-quality reports.

The VA expects to finish installing chlorine infusion systems at the Pittsburgh campuses by April, spokeswoman Ramona Joyce said, and expects to award contracts later this year for a $2.8 million system to monitor water temperature, chlorine and acidity.

“The Veterans Health Administration has moved to ensure that the lessons learned in Pittsburgh will increase safety nationwide,” Joyce said.

Dellinger was also critical of the national backlog of nearly 360,000 claims submitted by veterans, with the average claim taking more than a year to be settled.

He added that although the VA says veterans get 98 percent of what they're entitled to, he said the Legion has found veterans get about 65 percent of their benefits. Sometimes applications aren't complete or need additional documentation and then they just sit awaiting approval, he said.

By the end of 2015, according to the VA, a new paperless, digital disability claims system will ensure claims are processed within 125 days. The organization said it's also working to clear the backlog.

“The VA sees our relationship with the Legion and others as a partnership in providing the best services through health care and benefits earned,” Joyce said.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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