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Area congressmen want disclosure on VA accountability for Legionnaires' outbreak

| Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013, 11:42 p.m.

A bipartisan group of Pennsylvania congressmen is urging the Department of Veterans Affairs to explain whether it will hold anyone accountable for a fatal Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Pittsburgh.

Rep. Tim Murphy asked the VA to release by the week of Dec. 9 all its internal findings and disciplinary actions related to the outbreak and other patient-safety issues in Pittsburgh.

“The victims deserve better by the VA,” Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, wrote in a Friday letter to VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and obtained by the Tribune-Review. “Their families, who are still grieving their loss, deserve to know that someone has been held accountable.”

In a separate letter on Tuesday, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Allentown, and Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, inquired about “what related administrative action the VA plans to take.”

Shinseki and VA Pittsburgh spokesman William Leuthold expressed sympathy to the families of the Legionnaires' victims in written statements. Leuthold said the water safety regimen at the VA Pittsburgh is now one of the most rigorous in health care.

In a Nov. 15 letter to Murphy, Shinseki said that “internal personnel actions must remain confidential [and] any appropriate actions will be taken once all of the pertinent information from the pending investigations is gathered.”

At least five veteran deaths and 16 non-fatal cases are linked to the Legionnaires' outbreak believed to have occurred at two VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System hospitals from February 2011 to November 2012, when the outbreak was publicly announced. VA officials have said they would take any necessary disciplinary action once federal investigators finished a nine-month criminal review of the matter.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton announced on Thursday that his joint investigation with the FBI and VA's Office of Inspector General had not uncovered criminal wrongdoing in the handling of the outbreak. That stirred further outrage among families of victims, some of whom believe the VA misled them, botched a response to the disease and covered up the problem.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tied the outbreak to bacteria-tainted tap water at VA campuses in Oakland and O'Hara. A Trib investigation found Legionella — the bacteria that cause Legionnaires' disease — had appeared at alarming levels as early as 2007. The ailment is a severe form of pneumonia.

Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, said the VA must hold “fully accountable” everyone responsible for any missteps. He was instrumental in pending legislation that would require VA campuses to follow standards that private hospitals must meet in disclosing cases of infectious disease.

Independent reviews by a House subcommittee and the American Legion are continuing.

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