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VA bills aim at outbreaks

| Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014, 12:21 a.m.

The House of Representatives next week will consider legislation that would require veterans hospitals to disclose cases of infectious disease promptly to state and local health officials.

Federal hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs now disclose cases on a voluntary basis, a point highlighted by lawmakers after a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak struck the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System from February 2011 to November 2012. Pittsburgh VA officials delayed notifying state officials in at least one-third of 21 outbreak-linked cases but faced no penalties for the lag time, the Tribune-Review found.

Federal reviewers linked five patient deaths to the outbreak.

Doctors say reporting delays can hobble public health efforts to contain outbreaks as they develop, and state-licensed hospitals risk sanctions if they do not disclose infectious diseases within state-established guidelines. Many, including Pennsylvania, mandate reports within 24 hours of a diagnosis.

β€œFor the health and safety of our veterans, and all those who work in the facility to serve them, the VA must follow the same disease β€” and infection β€” reporting requirements every other hospital must abide by,” Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said in a prepared statement Friday.

He worked with Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and other lawmakers to draft bills that would bring VA hospitals under more uniform disclosure requirements. Some proposals would prescribe fines or allow civil lawsuits for failures to comply. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, introduced similar legislation.

Provisions of the House bills are slated for debate on Monday. After the Pittsburgh outbreak, VA leaders ordered federal hospitals nationwide to comply with disclosure rules in their respective counties and states. The department would prefer voluntary reporting rules and an exemption from proposed fines, VA leaders have said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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