Words by Bridget Foster.
When a state-licensed hospital encounters an outbreak of an infectious disease, most states require public disclosure within one day of the diagnosis or the hospital could face sanctions. Prior to February 3, 2014, VA hospitals were allowed to follow state and regional disclosure laws on a voluntary basis and faced no penalties for any delay in reporting outbreaks.
Now, legislation passed by the House on Monday (2/3/14) would make it illegal for hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs to conceal disease outbreaks. House Resolution 357 passed 390-0 directing VA hospitals to meet the disclosure laws in the states where they operate and opens them to penalties for failure to do so. The Senate is expected to vote on a similar bill later this week. Once differences are worked out, a merged version will be presented to President Obama to sign into law.
The impetus for the bills was the outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease in the Pittsburgh VA Healthcare system from February 2011 to November 2012. As many as 21 patients were diagnosed with the bacterial infection. A CDC investigation of the University Drive hospital in Oakland and the H. John Heinz III center in O’Hara tied the cases to a widespread colonization of the disease-causing bacteria Legionelle in the drinking water. Five patients died as a result of the infection.
After the CDC’s investigation, recommendations for mitigating the presence and growth of Legionelle were implemented but the facilities were cited for failure to adequately monitor levels of the bacteria. The CDC had also required specific protocols for testing patients for the disease and found that the facilities’ response to positive cultures was not in compliance with their recommendations.
The regional director at the time of the outbreak, Michael Moreland, took the brunt of the blame for the two facilities’ failure to control the Legionelle. He was allowed to retire last November and did not respond to reporters’ attempts to obtain a statement for this story. There has been no indication from VA officials in Washington whether disciplinary actions were taken against any VA workers or administrators in connection with the outbreak.
U.S. Senator Bob Casey, who introduced the Senate version of HR 357, called for the appointment of a regional director who has “the necessary leadership skills that were not present” during the two-year outbreak of Legionnaire’s.Casey said that Moreland’s successor should inspire workers by example and challenge “the VA to be fully committed to excellence.” The VA has yet to name a permanent director.
Several families of victims are suing or have announced an intention to sue the government for wrongful death. In one lawsuit filed on behalf of a WWII veteran who died from the disease, the federal government agreed that the man contracted Legionnaire’s as a result of negligence on the part of the VA. This admission however, did not extend to the family’s claim that Legionnaires’ disease was the cause of his death. The case goes to trial in mid-July.