WASHINGTON – A group of lawmakers is accusing the government of engaging in a high-stakes cover-up that includes hiding the real reason why five veterans died in a Pittsburgh-area hospital of Legionnaires’ disease – an outbreak they say could have been prevented -- and how thousands more could still be at risk.
“This has got the federal government’s footprints all over it,” Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., told FoxNews.com. “I am stunned at the coordination that took place and that is occurring at the highest levels of government to try and counter the blame.”
Legionnaires' disease is a severe form of pneumonia that can cause death. It is contracted by breathing in a mist or vapor contaminated with the Legionella bacteria, which can grow in cooling towers, showers and other water sources. Older adults, smokers and people with weakened immune systems are typically more susceptible to the disease.
The Department of Veterans Affairs had initially portrayed the Legionnaires’ outbreak at two Pittsburg, Penn.-area hospitals as a minor one that sickened four people. The department later said one had died.
But a recently released Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report revealed that in fact five patients had died.
While the details continue to be revised, a cloud of controversy still surrounds the incident which has snowballed into a scandal and has gotten the attention of Congress and top federal officials, including the VA’s inspector general.
Coffman, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations, called a hearing last week to discuss the inconsistencies in information by the VA hospital, the CDC, hospital employees, patients and the makers of an air filtration system used in the hospitals.
“The recent CDC report shows that the VA has either no idea of what was happening or that they were trying to downplay or cover up the numbers,” Coffman said. “The deaths of five veterans should not to be downplayed or dismissed.”
On Nov. 16, 2012, the VA announced that an outbreak of the disease had occurred. At the time, the department said it switched its water treatment systems at two of its hospitals in Pittsburgh and seemed to signal the problem had been fixed.
But aside from revealing the additional deaths, the new CDC report also showed that the hospital laboratory did not report the positive Legionnaires’ test results for more than two days after getting them -- a direct violation of hospital protocol.
Prior to last week’s hearing, the VA had said 29 cases of and one death from Legoinnaires’ had been reported – but not confirmed -- at the hospital since January 2011. The updated numbers raised new questions about the whether the outbreak could have been prevented and how many others may have been exposed.
“It’s clear that VA officials were concerned more about their own careers than the health or well-being of veterans,” Coffman said.
Dr. Cyril Wecht, a noted forensic pathologist who served on a federal committee that investigated early outbreaks of Legionnaires’ in the late 1970s, told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review he believes there are probably many more people who were exposed to the disease at the hospital and do not know it.
“I would be shocked and amazed if any physicians were to say all the cases were diagnosed,” he said.
During last week’s tense three-and-a-half-hour committee hearing, officials at the CDC said a series of breakdowns in hospital policy added to the confusion surrounding the outbreak.
The CDC report, obtained by FoxNews.com, also revealed that the hospital's laboratory did not follow protocol in notifying the Pittsburgh VA's infection prevention team when patients tested positive for Legionella bacteria, and that the infection prevention team did not typically contact the providers with the results. It also found that Legionella cultures were not done on the urine samples of 16 patients, which experts say would make it difficult to ascertain whether the infection was hospital-acquired.
LiquiTech Chief Operating Officer Tory Schira told FoxNews.com he was flabbergasted by the CDC testimony, which seemed to pin the problems on his company.
“We were blown away by their tone,” Schira said. “What they were accusing us of was blatantly false.”
He denied accusations that LiquiTech tried to save money by not updating the air filtration system in the hospital and said once a system was installed it was up to the hospital to keep up maintenance.
“The frustrating part is that we can’t force hospitals to do this,” he said. “There is no code -- no standard – to monitor levels or the system. We provide on-site training and offer courtesy visits, but they never took us up on it.”
The VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System said in a statement that it “continues to consult with the Centers for Disease Control and the Allegheny County Health Department and has taken appropriate steps to control Legionella.”
The statement continued, “Our ability to provide the best care to our veterans patients improves through expert consultation and analysis.”
Schira’s brother, LiquiTech Chairman Steve Schira, was also at the hearing. He testified that VA employees told his staff that maintenance wasn’t being performed as required. During his testimony he also said that his employees found a VA staffer falsifying the levels of copper – an important bacteria-killing element -- in the equipment last April. Calls to the VA for comment were not returned.