American Legion airs health care issues here

Deadly outbreak

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It was no mistake that the American Legion on Monday night held a town hall meeting with its national health care task force in Squirrel Hill.

Pittsburgh is one of 15 cities that the American Legion's System Worth Saving Task Force is visiting this year in advance of its 10th annual report on ways to improve the Veterans Health Administration, but the city was chosen for one reason.

The American Legion veterans organization, which gave Legionnaires' disease its name after the illness was first isolated following an American Legion convention in Philadelphia in 1976, has closely followed the investigations -- one from Congress, one from Veterans Affairs -- into a deadly Legionnaires' outbreak in Pittsburgh over the past year.

"Obviously we're very concerned about the Legionnaires' outbreak," Jacob Gadd, a Navy veteran who is the American Legion's nationwide deputy director for health care, told a crowd of about 40 people that included an estimated 30 veterans or family members.

The task force came to Pittsburgh to ask questions about the outbreak, he said, because "veterans need to know that the VA health care system is a safe place."

"The American Legion believes errors happen in any system," he added. "But when they do happen, we need to know they'll be corrected and not occur again."

The task force, which will spend today and Wednesday touring the Pittsburgh VA and hearing presentations on various topics, including the outbreak, invited local veterans to the town hall to ask them questions about subjects as diverse as trouble enrolling in VA care, problems with online health care and construction.

But the topic that got the most attention was the Legionnaires' outbreak, which first became public in November of last year. The outbreak, which occurred during 2011 and 2012, sickened 21 veterans and is blamed in the deaths of at least six other veterans.

The outbreak has greatly concerned Pittsburgh-area veterans, who have worried as much about how it occurred as how it was dealt with after it became known.

"I think [Pittsburgh VA officials] were more concerned with trying to sweep it under the rug," Jeff Pope, 73, a Navy veteran and an American Legion Post 980 district commander in Plum, told Mr. Gadd.

Nancy Kunkel, 54, an Air Force veteran and commander of American Legion Post 980 in Plum, told Mr. Gadd she wanted to see the people who were truly responsible for allowing the outbreak to continue punished.

"People are tired of seeing people on the lower levels heads roll instead of people at the top," she said.

Many in the audience nodded when they both spoke.

Also in attendance was Maureen Ciarolla, the daughter of John Ciarolla, 83, of North Versailles, who was the first victim of the outbreak.

She repeated for the task force what has become the mantra for the families of the victims of the outbreak: That the people who were responsible for letting the outbreak continue "be held accountable -- and you need to push" the VA.

"I just want to say, my father [received] good care, day to day at the VA," she added. "This [outbreak] is a leadership issue."

While the purpose of the meeting was primarily to air concerns, the task force also asked for examples of best practices and ways to improve the system.

To the surprise of some in the room, one of the voices telling stories about the successes at the VA was one of its most prominent critics in the Legionnaires' outbreak: Victor Yu.

Dr. Yu, an internationally known VA researcher in Pittsburgh for more than 30 years, was fired in 2005 in a dispute with management after the VA decided to close his Special Pathogens Laboratory there that had done groundbreaking Legionnaires' research.

During a discussion about how the Pittsburgh VA's intensive care units functioned, Dr. Yu offered that while he felt "so bad about what happened to the patients who all died in the ICU" during the outbreak, he added: "The VA's ICUs are among the best around."

"There are many wonderful things about the VA," he told the task force. "You can go there and have excellent care."

Officials from the Pittsburgh VA normally bristle any time Dr. Yu's name is invoked because of the enmity that has built up between him and them.

But one of those officials, David Cord, the Pittsburgh VA's deputy director, was at Monday's meeting with five other VA employees and said: "I was pleased to hear his comments, but in the sense that it's something that others in the organization would say every day."

Sean D. Hamill: or 412-263-2579.

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