By Luis Fabregas and Mike Wereschagin
Congressmen on Monday accused Department of Veterans Affairs leaders of defying their requests for information about how a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak occurred at the VA Pittsburgh.
Workers at the VA Pittsburgh found Legionella bacteria in the water systems as far back as 2007, five years before the agency disclosed it, the Tribune-Review reported on Sunday, using documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Members of Congress said they requested but never received those documents.
"People are tired of not being able to get a straight answer out of these folks. There are people in charge who need to be held accountable for this," Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, told the Trib.
"I want to work together with the VA. I don't want to be playing a cat-and-mouse game," said a frustrated Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair.
The Legionnaires' disease outbreak that likely began in early 2011 and ended in November 2012 sickened as many as 21 veterans, five of whom died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC reviewed patient medical records dating to 2007 but did not ask for the hospitals' Legionella bacteria test results to determine when the potentially deadly bug might have been in the water system, a Trib investigation found.
A CDC spokeswoman declined to review the newspaper's documents.
VA Pittsburgh spokesman David Cowgill did not respond to a request for interviews with CEO Terry Wolf and her supervisor, regional Director Michael Moreland.
"These revelations paint a troubling picture of rampant mismanagement and incompetence among some officials within the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare system," said House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla. "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."
Miller accused VA officials of continuing to "openly defy Congress by failing to turn over documents and materials."
Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, said the Trib's disclosure provides evidence that agency officials lack accountability.
"Congress has repeatedly requested all documents related to the Legionnaires' disease outbreak dating to 2007. When considered in context of the Trib-Review's study, the VA's failure to produce these documents is even more outrageous and unacceptable," Rothfus said.
Murphy co-sponsored a bill to require speedier reporting of infectious diseases. The bill is scheduled for a committee hearing on Wednesday.
"Nothing ever improves or changes at the VA," said Nancy Meyer of McKeesport, whose husband, Army veteran Vaughn Meyer, died in April. He was treated at VA hospitals in Oakland and O'Hara.
"I suppose that at some point they'll respond, but it will be when they feel like it and on their terms."
Meyer said her husband, who had cancer, was diagnosed with pneumonia several times from December through April, when he died. VA employees told her he wasn't tested for Legionnaires' disease, she said.
"I don't know whether that's true or not," said Meyer, 58.
"After I read all of these stories, it makes me wonder. It's so convoluted and political. There never seems to be anybody who's go-ing to do the right thing."
Neither the CDC nor state Health Department officials have direct authority to oversee VA hospitals, though the VA invited their investigators to Pittsburgh about a month before the last Legionnaires' victim died from the disease.
Patient records might not encompass the whole picture because VA officials have acknowledged they didn't test all pneumonia cases for Legionnaires' disease until the outbreak's waning days.
"Veterans coming back from war need to have trust in the health care system of the federal government," said Ron Conley, director of veterans services for Allegheny County.
"By not fully disclosing information, it makes veterans apprehensive about seeking care within the VA."
Yet Conley believes the VA provides good health care.
"This puts a blemish on them being the best," he said. "They've been a model for others to emulate, but I'm sure nobody wants to emulate this policy."