Union claims 'cover-up' in Legionnaires' outbreak at Oakland VA hospital

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A union which represents hundreds of workers at the Pittsburgh Veterans Administration's hospital in Oakland alleged today that the government is engaged in a "cover-up" about the cause of the Legionnaires' disease outbreak here.

"It is very troubling to us that this type of outbreak would occur at a facility that used to be a leader in Legionnaires research," AFGE District 3 National Vice President Keith Hill said in a press release. "The researchers responsible for identifying the connection between the disease and the water systems were forced out of the VA, and their research destroyed, when VISN 4 Director Michael Moreland was the head of the facility. Now this issue resurfaces while he's the regional director. He most certainly should be held responsible for the missteps and cover-up that are occurring."

The researchers Mr. Hill refers to are Janet Stout and Victor Yu who are considered Legionnaires' experts. They both worked for decades at the Pittsburgh VA, but Dr. Yu was forced out in 2006 and Dr. Stout resigned in 2007 after a dispute with management.

The VA did not immediately respond to the AFGE's allegations.

In a phone interview today, Mr. Hill said he based his allegations of a "cover-up" on stories he read in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in which the families of two men who died after contracting Legionnaires' said the Pittsburgh VA told them the men probably got the disease from their home water supplies, not at the VA.

"I know by what I read and what I see, also," Mr. Hill said. "And from my understanding, some of these families were led to believe they contracted the disease when they went on a trip to their homes, when it all likelihood they got it at the (Pittsburgh VA) facility. I don't know what else to call it but a cover-up."

He said the union is still waiting to hear if there is confirmation that five or six employees in the VA's University Drive hospital in Oakland also contracted Legionnaires'.

Those employees contracted pneumonia in the last four to six weeks, Mr. Hill said, but they still don't know if it was from Legionnaires', which sometimes mistaken for pneumonia.

The Legionnaires outbreak was first revealed by the Pittsburgh VA's University Drive hospital on Nov. 16, when it said four patients had contracted the disease from the hospital's water system.

Six days later, the VA said a fifth person had contracted the disease from the hospital. A day later, that man, William E. Nicklas, 87, of Hampton, died.

Two other families have told the Post-Gazette that men in their families -- John McChesney, 63, of Columbus, Pa., and John Ciarolla, 83, of North Versailles -- also died after contracting Legionnaires.

It is not clear yet if those two men contracted the illness at the University Drive hospital, though both of them had lengthy stays there before contracting the disease.

One of those two men -- Mr. Ciarolla -- also was staying at the Pittsburgh VA's H.J. Heinz nursing home, near Aspinwall.

The VA says it has had eight other patients since January, 2011, who had Legionnaires that they contracted outside the hospital But there are 16 more in which patients had Legionnaires', but the VA can't say whether they contracted it inside the hospital or outside.

"It is time for VA leadership to be held responsible for the lack of oversight and inability to act quickly when first notified of this situation," AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee said in the press release. "Ultimately the buck stops with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. The lack of attention being paid to issues affecting patient care has our veterans paying the price. It's time for Secretary Shinseki to step up and make serious strides toward getting to the bottom of what's happening in the Pittsburgh VA medical system."

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


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