Legionnaires’ Disease Scandal Continues to Fester
By Jerry A. Kane
At least five military veterans have died and thousands more could still be at risk from an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at two VA hospitals in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The outbreak likely began in early 2011 and ended in November 2012, but its effects fester.
So far the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have linked five deaths and 21 illnesses to the disease. However, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newspaper investigation puts the number higher.
CDC went through patient medical records back to 2007, but the agency did not look at the hospitals’ test results to find out when the Legionella bacteria might have been in the water systems. Using documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the newspaper investigation discovered that VA hospital workers had found Legionella bacteria in the water systems in 2007, five years before the VA announced the outbreak of the disease.
“These revelations paint a troubling picture of rampant mismanagement and incompetence among some officials within the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare system. Unfortunately, incompetence and mismanagement — coupled with an extreme reluctance to come clean about the facts — have defined the department’s response to the tragic Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Pittsburgh.“—Jeff Miller, (R-FL), Chairman, House Veterans Affairs Committee
When the outbreak first occurred, the Department of Veterans Affairs downplayed it as minor, sickening only four people. But as the details unfolded, it became “clear that VA officials were concerned more about their own careers than the health or well-being of veterans.”
And now Pittsburgh’s “minor” outbreak has mushroomed into a full-blown national scandal, garnering the attention of Congress and the VA’s inspector general. The questions now being asked are could the outbreak have been prevented and have others been exposed to the disease.
Dr. Cyril Wecht, a forensic pathologist who served on a federal committee that investigated Legionnaires’ outbreaks in the late 1970s thinks that more people were exposed to the disease at the hospitals and do not know it.
The rub is that the officials who presided over the two-year outbreak not only continue to manage Pittsburgh’s VA healthcare system, they also received bonuses for their outstanding efforts during that time. Regional VA director and former CEO of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, Michael Moreland, was awarded a $63,000 bonus from the White House.
The White House also doled out bonuses to 46 other VA managers last year. The bonuses are part of a program that gives senior executives cash awards equal to 35 percent of their salaries. The senior executive pay scales starts at about $120,000, which would make the bonus close to $42,000. The bonuses have been suspended this year due to budget cuts.
The VA managers’ handling of the outbreak has many area veterans concerned about going to the hospitals for treatment.
“Veterans coming back from war need to have trust in the health care system of the federal government. By not fully disclosing information, it makes veterans apprehensive about seeking care within the VA.”—Ron Conley, Director, veterans services for AlleghenyCounty
Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia that can be deadly, especially for the elderly, smokers, and people with weak immune systems. It is caused by the bacteria legionella. Mist or vapor contaminated with the legionella bacteria can come from whirlpool spas, bathtubs, air-conditioning units, and drinking fountains.
“How can we stand by and not hold accountable those who neglected our veterans, whose love of God and country inspired them to serve and preserve our country’s people and our fundamental liberties?”— Salena Zito, staff writer, columnist, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
For more on the story, see “Too tired to care about VA scandal?,” “Congressmen: VA Pittsburgh ignored requests for Legionnaires’ records,” and Lawmakers accuse VA of covering up veterans’ deaths.