The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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July 18, 2013

Doctor: Home’s inaction lead to deaths

JOHNSTOWN — The former medical director for the Hollidaysburg Veterans Home alleges his efforts to protect residents from a fast-spreading flu were muzzled by the home’s administrators – and led to as many as 38 deaths there this year.

Dr. John M. Vasil of Northern Cambria and his former employer, Adara Healthcare Staffing, allege state officials endangered residents at the home by ignoring repeated requests for flu medication and an immediate quarantine – and then terminated their contract after they went up the chain of command to try to force action, a whistleblower complaint shows.

Attorney Neil J. Gregorio said Vasil and Adara got nowhere trying to warn higher-ups with the Department of Veterans Affairs about neglect at the 550-bed home. In a two-inch thick lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court this week,  Vasil and Adara allege that their bosses initially withheld information about the flu and then did little while it spread throughout the home.

“My clients were acting with the best interests of these veterans at heart ... but they were thwarted every step of the way by a regime that put saving money ahead of these residents,” Gregorio said, claiming Vasil’s repeated requests for the drug Tamiflu were ignored.

Officials at the Hollidaysburg Veterans Home were not reached for comment late Thursday afternoon. Messages left for the home’s director,  Deborah Nesbella, were also not returned, including a call to her Ebensburg home.  

A voicemail to Military and Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Joan Nissley was also unreturned. But Nissley told the Tribune Review in Pittsburgh that the state disputed the complaint’s claims, saying “immediate” action was taken to stop the virus from spreading.

“Initially, there was not enough Tamiflu on hand to do the entire facility,” Nissley said, explaining that “stockpiling that much is very expensive.”

Gregorio maintained the first patient was diagnosed Jan. 10 and Vasil learned of it through a nurse the next day through a message from outside the home.

“They tried to keep the information from him,” Gregorio said.

The complaint indicates a full quarantine was implemented Jan. 13 after multiple patients fell ill.

On Jan. 14, Adara Healthcare Staffing’s three-year contract was terminated –  only six months into the pact, Gregorio said.

Gregorio said the veterans home’s reasoning was “for cause”  – not fulfilling duties – but he disputes that.

“Their main issue they gave was that a second (certified) nurse practitioner wasn’t added fast enough,” Gregorio said, maintaining the process was delayed by administrators.

The complaint requests a jury trial. Gregorio said the goal of the lawsuit is to change the culture at the veterans home.

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