The U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing today on the Legionnaire’s outbreak at the VA’s Pittsburgh hospital in Oakland between June 2011 and last November.
Steve Schira, Chairman and CEO of Liquitech, Inc, which manufactures copper ionization systems, testified his employees saw Veterans Affairs staff fabricating copper ionization data before the recent outbreak.
Liquitech staff provided advice to the hospital regarding its water treatment.
Copper ionization systems treat water to neutralize the Legionella bacteria that cause Legionnaire’s. The disease is normally contracted when people breathe in a mist or vapor of water that has been contaminated with the bacteria.
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, five people have died from the outbreak, while the VA is only reporting one death.
U.S. Representative Tim Murphy (R-PA-18) along with Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA-14) requested the hearing.
Murphy said the committee found problems with the ionization system at the hospital; that companies that manufactured the equipment were not properly notified of the outbreak; and, a serious lag time between when Legionella was found and when doctors and staff were notified.
Murphy said a key employee trained to monitor the system was out on disability when the outbreak began.
“It was not clear that there was sufficient staff there who were trained to replace this person while this employee was out,” said Murphy. “That again would leave a gap in getting accurate information on this copper ionization system.”
Murphy said he wanted to see more VA officials at the hearing. He said it raises further questions as to why the VA isn’t being forthcoming and talking.
He said he would have asked the hospital director about standards to prevent outbreaks.
“One of the shocking things that is also about Legionella disease is there are no standards,” said Murphy. “Each hospital within the VA, each hospital makes up their own standards of when they detect cases and when they then decide to take some action on their equipment, what kind of equipment they purchase, when they notify doctors.”
Murphy said the CDC and VA need to adopt better regulations regarding notification of staff, water treatment, and prevention of outbreaks.
He also expressed concerned over the testimony of Kathleen Dahl, a staff member and president of the local union representing hospital employees. According to Murphy, Dahl testified that Lovetta Ford, an associate director at the hospital, told her she didn’t have to speak to the committee and mentioned she could be “sick” on the day of the hearing.
Congressman Doyle said he was upset by a lack of information from the VA. "If they weren't going to have the people on the ground that were running that system and could be very specific with us about this interaction with the companies that came in there and tested the levels, that certainly those people should have been completely debriefed byi whomever the VA was sending down here (Washington) to testify," Doyle said.
"It's not going to go away, they're (the VA) going to have to address these question and answer them."
Doyle said the Inspector General's report into the outbreak is due in March.