Power cut in VA operating rooms

Updated:

PITTSBURGH - A contractor working on the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System's Oakland campus accidentally cut power for more than three hours in two operating rooms while surgeries were taking place, prompting lawmakers to demand answers about what happened.

One patient was receiving a liver transplant; another was undergoing vascular surgery, VA officials told members of Congress.

VA spokesman David Cowgill described the May 2 incident to the Tribune-Review as a "brief power outage in a portion of our University Drive campus." He said "contingency power was immediately available, ensuring safe, continued operations throughout the facility."

Yet the incident is under scrutiny by several lawmakers who were briefed about it on Thursday, one week after it occurred. VA officials provided information that U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy deemed as "too vague," according to Murphy's spokesman.

Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, wants specific answers, including a timeline of events, his spokesman said.

"Reports that the power went out at the Pittsburgh VA while some patients were in surgery are certainly troubling," said John Rizzo, a spokesman for Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton.
 
"When stuff like that happens at a facility, the buck stops at the top," said Joseph Cocco, state commander for the American Legion of Pennsylvania. "You have to blame the administration."

The outage began about 5:30 p.m. and lasted until 9 p.m. A contractor working on a loading dock project accidentally cut a 3-inch electrical conduit. As a result, power was lost in part of a building housing acute care patients, according to a summary of the incident that VA officials sent to members of Congress.

U.S. Rep Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said he's satisfied with the VA's response to his questions.

"It's certainly the fault of no one in that hospital that a private contractor cut the electric cord," said Doyle, whose brother, Patrick, is a speech pathologist for the Pittsburgh VA.

VA staff moved an unknown number of patients from the surgical intensive care unit to another intensive care unit with power. VA officials told lawmakers that backup power to the affected operating rooms enabled doctors to complete the two surgeries.

Dr. Tom Cacciarelli, chief of transplantation at the VA, hung up on a reporter when reached on his cellphone.

"I'm not commenting on that," he said. "You're calling the wrong person."

Cowgill would not say whether the VA informed the patients about the incident. He did not respond when asked why the VA did not make public what happened.

Members of Congress, veterans groups and families of patients have criticized the VA for delaying disclosures of a fatal outbreak of Legionnaires' disease from February 2011 to November 2012. The outbreak sickened as many as 21 patients in the Oakland and O'Hara facilities; five patients died.

The transplant patient was being treated in a critical care unit, as is standard protocol for such patients. There is no evidence the power outage affected the patient's condition. The patient who underwent vascular surgery was discharged.

A yearlong construction project to redo a dock and enable a bridge from the heliport to the intensive care units began this year and stirred concern among VA workers, said Kathi Dahl, president of AFGE Local 2028, which represents about 2,500 Pittsburgh VA workers.

"When you have that much construction from different contractors, it's too much activity, drilling, vibrations," she said, noting other projects to update elevators and food preparation areas. "Things like that pose a risk."

Workers worry about contingency plans for air circulation and ventilation and an adequate backup system for power and lighting, Dahl said. "Whenever we push and push and push is when I worry about safety not being top priority," she said. "When you have different contractors doing different jobs, I don't know if the left hand knows what the right hand is doing."

The power failure follows revelations that leaders at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare Systems received performance bonuses during the Legionnaires' outbreak. The bonuses, first reported in the Tribune-Review, encouraged lawmakers to propose a five-year ban on performance bonuses for senior executives.

The VA gave a performance bonus of $12,924 to Pittsburgh VA CEO Terry Gerigk Wolf for fiscal 2011; her supervisor, regional VA Director Michael Moreland, received a bonus of $15,619. Moreland, who oversees VA health care facilities in most of Pennsylvania and all or parts of five surrounding states, received a separate, nearly $63,000 bonus as part of a White House-approved Presidential Distinguished Rank Award.

This article was written by Channel 11's news exchange partners at TribLIVE.