Casey: Department of Veterans Affairs must improve communications on Legionnaires' outbreak

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Seeking to keep pressure on the federal Department of Veterans Affairs as it continues its investigation into a Legionnaires outbreak in its facilities in Pittsburgh, U.S. Sen. Robert Casey today sent VA Secretary Eric Shinseki a letter asking for the VA to improve its communications -- both internally and to the public.

"I am writing to express my continued concern with the response to the recent outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System (VAPHS)," Mr. Casey, a Democrat, wrote in the letter. "Effective communication, both internal and external, is critical. There is more that the VA can do to provide pertinent information to the public about the outbreak and response."

Mr. Casey cited the results of both a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigation and the testimony during a U.S. House subcommittee hearing Feb. 5 that "raised many questions about events leading up to the outbreak and how the VAPHS handled the outbreak once it occurred" as demonstrating that the Pittsburgh VA needs to make four changes based on the CDC report:

• For VAPHS to follow best practices for maintaining any Legionella control system as recommended by public health agencies and manufacturers

• To also follow the water sampling protocol discussed and recommended by the CDC in their report and that VA water sampling policy has been modified to reflect that such best practices will be used going forward in all VA facilities that are prone to Legionella infection

• Revise and improve internal VA communications plans between the pathology labs, prevention team, providers and patients based on the feedback from the CDC and lessons learned from this recent outbreak

• That external communications plans between the VAPHS, Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Allegheny County Health Department regarding Legionnaires' Disease surveillance and outbreak response be revised and improved based on the feedback from the CDC and lessons learned from this recent outbreak.

In addition, Mr. Casey asked that the VA make the CDC report public.

The report was handed out to the public and members of Congress who attended the Feb. 5 subcommittee hearing, but it has not been publicly posted on the VA's website or the CDC's.

"A public report would provide valuable information about the outbreak and the VA's response to the families who have been impacted by this tragedy," Mr. Casey wrote. "Also, the people of southwestern Pennsylvania have a right to know what happened."

The VA said in an emailed statement later Thursday: "The Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to providing the high quality care our Veterans have earned and deserve. VA has received the letter and is currently reviewing it. VA will respond formally to Senator Casey."

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Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579.


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