U.S. Sen. Bob Casey said Tuesday that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs insulted the families of the victims of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA by not revealing two internal investigations that showed what caused the deadly outbreak of 2011 and 2012.
“When a federal government agency has information that could shed light on and give information to families searching for answers, but doesn’t release it,” Mr. Casey, D-Pa., said in an interview, “to withhold that is insulting and I don’t think in any way fortifies the confidence that people have in the VA, and, if anything, will undermine that confidence.”
His comments came after he sent a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asking the VA to release the internal investigations to him and the public that were completed in December 2012, just weeks after the outbreak was first announced. It was later revealed that the outbreak likely sickened at least 22 veterans, six of whom later died.
Mr. Casey also asked Mr. Shinseki to release any other internal investigations that might have been completed, and tell him whether the VA’s Office of Inspector General — which completed its own investigation in April 2013 — was aware of the earlier investigations.
The VA said in an emailed statement: “The Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to providing the best quality, safe and effective health care our Veterans have earned and deserve. VA received the letter today and will respond formally to Senator Casey’s office.”
The two VA investigations were completed within weeks of each other and essentially placed the blame for the outbreak on VA employees and their decisions and not a VA water treatment system that officials initially tried to blame.
The reports were not revealed until the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first disclosed their contents earlier this month, a year and a half after they were completed.
Mr. Casey also noted that both investigations were completed only weeks after he first asked Mr. Shinseki to conduct an investigation into the cause of the outbreak — but neither he nor any other elected official was ever shown the results of the two December 2012 investigations.
“The idea that they were asked publicly by a representative of the state and his constituents to do an investigation and they did not reveal these is insulting — more to the families of the victims than to me,” he said.
In his letter to Mr. Shinseki, Mr. Casey pointed out the timing.
“What’s particularly concerning about these reports is the timing of these internal investigations,” Mr. Casey wrote, in part.
“In the days and weeks following the initial outbreak, the impacted families and residents in southwestern Pennsylvania searched for answers about what occurred and what was being done to prevent a similar outbreak in the future. It’s important to know if the findings of these internal investigations could have better informed my constituents as well as my office about what was occurring.”
It was on Nov. 16, 2012, that the Pittsburgh VA first informed the public about the outbreak in a news release that placed blame on the copper-silver ionization water treatment system, which it said then “may not be as effective as previously thought.”
That system was designed to control the Legionella bacterium in the VA’s water system to prevent the water-borne disease from reaching patients and workers.
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579. First Published March 25, 2014 3:18 PM