Government concedes negligence in Legionnaires' lawsuit

By ADAM SMELTZ AND BRIAN BOWLING | The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review | Published: February 4, 2014

House legislation that would make it illegal for veterans hospitals nationwide to conceal disease outbreaks won passage on Monday evening with bipartisan approval.

Supporters argued a fatal outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System shows a need for the transparency rules, which would require VA hospitals to report promptly cases of infectious disease to state and local health departments.

Separately, the federal government agreed Monday that a World War II veteran contracted Legionnaires because of government negligence at the VA's University Drive hospital in Oakland.

Lawmakers from across Western Pennsylvania said veterans deserve better.

“We owe it to them and their families to make sure that at least some good comes from this tragic incident,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills.

He was one of several members of the Pennsylvania delegation who called for more thorough disease disclosures and institutional accountability since federal reviews linked at least five patient deaths to the Legionnaires' outbreak from February 2011 to November 2012. Reviewers tied 16 non-fatal cases to bacteria-tainted tap water at VA campuses in Oakland and O'Hara.

Hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs now report disease cases to state and local health officials on a voluntary basis, a fact that lawmakers spotlighted after the Pittsburgh outbreak. Local VA officials delayed notifying the Pennsylvania Department of Health in at least one-third of the outbreak-linked cases but faced no penalties for the lag time, the Tribune-Review found.

Reporting delays can inhibit public health efforts to identify and contain outbreaks as they develop, doctors have said. State-licensed hospitals risk sanctions if they do not disclose infectious diseases within state-established guidelines. Many states, including Pennsylvania, mandate the reports within one day of a diagnosis, though VA hospitals escape those requirements.

House Resolution 357 would direct VA hospitals to meet standard disclosure rules in the states where they operate and could open them to penalties when they do not. The House voted 390-0 on the resolution.

“This inconsistency makes absolutely no sense and leaves the VA off the hook,” said Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, who joined Doyle, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, in support of the bill.

A similar version introduced by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, is expected to reach a Senate vote later this week and merge with the House version before going to President Obama.

Several families of identified outbreak victims have sued or announced plans for wrongful death litigation. In one case, lawyers for the government and victim William E. Nicklas' widow filed a pretrial motion on Monday agreeing that government negligence led to his case of Legionnaires' disease, a severe form of pneumonia.

The agreement will shorten the length of the trial scheduled for mid-July but doesn't resolve the central claim that Legionnaires' disease caused Nicklas' death, said Harry S. Cohen, one of the attorneys for Greta M. Nicklas, 81, of Hampton.

A VA spokeswoman referred questions to the Justice Department, where an attorney could not be reached for comment. VA officials testified in June that they would support voluntary reporting guidelines for infectious diseases but agree public disclosures are important. After the Pittsburgh outbreak, they directed VA hospitals nationwide to follow state and regional disclosure rules on a voluntary basis.


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