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Bill would require VA to report outbreaks to state health departments

WASHINGTON – The improper reuse of insulin pens at the Buffalo Veterans Affairs Medical Center attracted attention in Congress on Wednesday as a leading House member on veterans issues cited it as evidence that lawmakers should pass his legislation requiring the VA to report infections to state health departments.

The VA did not report a Legionnaire’s disease outbreak – which claimed five lives – at a hospital in Pittsburgh in 2011 to state authorities, prompting Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., to introduce legislation that would require such reporting.

“The need for the Infectious Disease Reporting Act is reflected not just in the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Pittsburgh,” said Coffman, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, at a hearing on his bill. “Just last month almost 20 veterans tested positive for hepatitis A or B after a VA hospital in Buffalo admitted to reusing insulin pens on patients.”

Coffman’s legislation would require VA facilities nationwide to comply with state infectious disease reporting requirements – which, by law, they are not now required to do.

A spokesman for the Buffalo VA Medical Center said the local hospital reports infection outbreaks to the state Department of Health.

Dr. Robert L. Jesse, principal deputy undersecretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said at the hearing that local VA facilities are encouraged to report infections to state health departments, but he conceded that not all do so.

Nevertheless, he said, the VA still prefers sticking with a voluntary approach to reporting health data.

Improvements can be made “without new mandates in legislation that raise legal complications, as well as create administrative burdens by requiring compliance with many different state laws,” Jesse said.

But Coffman said his bill was common sense.

“It is baffling to me that the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Hospital, which sits just a few hundred feet from the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center, is required to report infectious diseases, while the VA hospital is not,” Coffman said.

Several witnesses at the hearing, including a representative of state epidemiologists nationwide and a legislative aide for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, voiced support for the bill, which aides to Coffman believe can pass as a stand-alone measure later this year.

“Had this bill had been law in 2011 and 2012, the number of infections” in Pittsburgh could have been far lower, said Nick McCormick, legislative associate with the veterans group.

Meanwhile, Dr. Paul Etkind, senior director of infectious diseases at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said it’s important that such cases be reported so that health departments can prevent infections from spreading beyond the VA hospitals.

Coffman agreed, saying: “This bill won’t undo the tragedies we’ve seen at VA facilities in Pittsburgh, Buffalo and elsewhere, but it is a step toward ensuring these kinds of heartbreaking incidents won’t happen again.”