WASHINGTON D.C. (KDKA) — Officials with the Veterans’ Affairs Department were grilled on Tuesday over a fatal outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at Pittsburgh-area VA hospitals.
There were even accusations that some data was falsified.
In written remarks delivered to the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Dr. Robert Jesse, Deputy Undersecretary for Heath of the Veterans Administration, says: The VA “is committed to providing the highest quality of care that our Veterans have earned and deserve and continues to ensure the safety and protection of our patients. We deeply regret that any veteran was exposed to Legionella bacterium at VAPHS.”
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, chair of the subcommittee, opened the hearing by announcing that the Centers for Disease Control found that five veterans have died from Legionnaires’ disease acquired at the VA Hospital in Pittsburgh.
Coffman questioned whether the VA had accurate numbers with regard to the disease. He also wondered aloud whether the agency downplayed the severity of the problem.
Coffman was also critical that although the VA was represented at the hearing, no one directly connected to the operation of the Pittsburgh facility was sent to testify.
Mike Moreland, the network director from the Department of Veterans Affairs, was asked pointedly by Chairman Coffman whether various medical personnel were alerted early on.
As he began a lengthy answer, Coffman interrupted, saying: “Please answer the question. Do you want me to repeat the question?”
Moreland asked that the question be repeated, and then admitted the personnel Coffman asked about were not notified.
Moreland testified that he was first alerted to a Legionella problem in the fall of 2011.
There was a five-month lull when no further cases were reported, and they thought the problem was solved. Then, the problem recurred.
Rep. David Roe, R-Tennessee, questioned VA officials about why families like that of John Ciarolla, a Pittsburgh area vet who died, were made to wonder whether he contracted the disease at home.
Maureen Ciarolla, the veteran’s daughter, who was part of a CBS News investigation, is in attendance at the hearing.
“We were told when I asked how he contracted it; we were told that if he contracted it at the hospital – they wanted to test our water – if he had contracted it at the VA, there would be other cases,” said Ciarolla. “They deliberately mislead.”
Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pennsylvania, asked pointed questions about whether there was any evidence VA staff falsified data.
Regional VA Director Moreland said there was no evidence of that.
Murphy also asked Dr. Lauri Hicks, from the Centers for Disease Control, whether Legionella levels were checked at nearby Oakland hospitals as part of their investigation. Hicks replied that Legionella levels at other hospitals were not reviewed as part of their investigation.
Under questioning by Rep. Murphy, Steve Shira, CEO of Liquitech, Inc., which is a consulting firm that worked with the VA Hospital system in Pittsburgh, testified that his employees observed VA staffers falsifying data regarding water testing.
“Deeply disturbing that that occurred on multiple levels that we don’t know if those employees were properly trained to… keeping track of the numbers,” said Rep. Murphy.