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VA quiet on employee discipline in Legionnaires' disease outbreak

A month since they demanded transparency, Pennsylvania congressmen are waiting for the Department of Veterans Affairs to reveal how it will hold workers accountable for a Pittsburgh disease outbreak blamed for five deaths.

“I am extremely frustrated but not surprised” by the delay, said Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, who urged the VA to be more transparent. “The trust that veterans have in the VA will only be restored when the department's leadership is totally honest and open with the men and women they are required to serve.”

Murphy asked the VA in November to share with him by the week of Dec. 9 all internal findings and discipline stemming from the outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, made similar requests.

As many as 21 veterans contracted Legionnaires' disease between February 2011 and November 2012 from bacteria-tainted tap water at VA campuses in Oakland and O'Hara, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A review by the VA Office of Inspector General found the Pittsburgh VA did not follow established guidelines in combating the waterborne Legionella bacteria that cause Legionnaires' disease, a severe form of pneumonia, though an investigation under U.S. Attorney David Hickton identified no criminal wrongdoing.

“The VA has a long way to go before all the issues raised by the Legionnaires' outbreak in Pittsburgh are addressed,” said Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, who urged accountability.

He said the VA “must demonstrate a commitment to continue reforming its practices so that there is better coordination and communication with patients and family members.”

The VA is continuing an internal review to develop “recommended administrative actions” after the outbreak, VA officials said in a written statement to the Tribune-Review. They did not say when that review might be completed or whether any workers were disciplined.

“Again, the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System extends its condolences to the families of the veterans affected by acquiring Legionella in our health care system,” the statement read. It said the water-safety regimen there “is now among the most rigorous” in health care.

For those found responsible in the outbreak, details of any disciplinary consequences could be shielded from full public view. VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki has said “internal personnel actions must remain confidential.”

Federal privacy rules generally prohibit disclosure of certain personal information about government workers, including disciplinary records, unless an employee allows release of that information, the Office of Personnel Management reported.

Still, that should not preclude the VA from disclosing disciplinary actions to Congress, according to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. The committee is continuing its investigation into the outbreak.

“We understand on some level these things are personnel matters, and we understand this is still a matter subject to litigation. But there's also a public interest here,” said J. Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees in Washington.

He said the union representing 2,500 Pittsburgh VA workers is not aware of discipline ordered because of the Legionnaires' outbreak.

“People need to know that the VA is taking this very seriously — and not just with pronouncements, but with actual actions,” Morrow said.

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