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Pa. VA hospital knew of Legionella problem before patient's death

(CBS News) There's been an outbreak other than the flu at the VA Hospital in Pittsburgh. It raises the question: What do patients have the right to know?

The bacterium that causes the respiratory illness known as Legionnaires' disease was found in the hospital's water system. The hospital and government officials knew about the outbreak but not the patients who were admitted there.

In November, 87-year-old William Nicklas, a Navy veteran, felt nauseated from medication. He went to the Pittsburgh VA hospital. His sons, Bob and Dave Nicklas, weren't particularly concerned.

"He had full trust in the VA," Dave said. "He was loyal to the military, loyal to the treatment he would receive there.It should be the best care in the world."

But in the hospital, he picked up an infection.

"The doctors wanted to meet with us Wednesday night. The family got together, and that's when she told us it was the Legionella bacteria that was the infection," Bob said.

William fought for his life for three days. The day after Thanks giving he was dead. His family thought they would be bringing him home.

What the family didn't know when William checked in was that the Pittsburgh VA had been battling an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease. There were at least four infections before William, and the bacteria had been reported in the hospital's water nearly a year before his death.

The manufacturer of the hospital's Legionella prevention equipment, Liquitech, claims that in December 2011 the Pittsburgh VA told them it had a Legionella problem. In emails, Liquitech wrote they had been made aware of the bacteria and an inspection showed the hospital systems were not being properly maintained.

"If they knew that there was an outbreak at that hospital then you've got two other, you know, world renowned hospitals located directly across the street from the Veterans Hospital," Dave said. "They could have easily transferred those patients so they weren't exposed."

The hospital did report the problem to the county health department and the federal Centers for Disease Control, but it wasn't until two weeks after William was admitted that it went public. It acknowledged that patients had contracted Legionnaire's disease in the hospital. Two weeks later, the hospital announced 24 more were treated there, but the hospital said the origin of 16 of those infections was unknown.

"The facility has worked... to formulate a plan to suppress the Legionella. Testing results indicate remediation... has been successful," Pittsburgh VA said in a statement, declining an interview.

A federal investigation has begun into whether the hospital was prudent in protecting its patients. The hospital said it is under no legal requirement to report Legionnaires' disease cases or outbreaks to the public or its patients. The Nicklas family plans to sue.

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