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VA union leaders angry over bonuses paid during Legionnaires' outbreak

| Thursday, April 25, 2013, 3:36 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Six congressional Republicans are asking the secretary of Veterans Affairs to intervene personally in their attempt to find out who was disciplined over a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at VA Pittsburgh.

Veterans Affairs union leaders on Thursday expressed outrage over performance bonuses awarded to top VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System leaders amid a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

“I was shocked,” Kathi Dahl, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2028, said about the five-figure bonuses that were first reported in the Tribune-Review. The local union represents about 2,500 employees at the VA Oakland and O'Hara facilities.

Terry Wolf, director and CEO of the VA Pittsburgh hospitals, received a $12,924 bonus for fiscal year 2011. Her boss, VA regional director Michael Moreland, who oversees most of Pennsylvania and all or parts of four other states under so-called VISN4, received $15,619 that fiscal year, the Trib reported.

“When I see (Wolf's and Moreland's bonuses) combined, that, to me, is a full-time employee,” Dahl said.

David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said he was “stunned” by the bonus figures. AFGE is the largest federal employee union, representing 670,000 federal workers, including 208,000 employees within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Nurses, doctors, support staff and others are forced to do more with less in order to care for our vets, while executives are rewarded for mismanagement,” Cox said. “This has to end.”

Calls for accountability were sounded on Thursday in Washington, where Moreland and Wolf appeared at the request of a bipartisan House delegation from Western Pennsylvania that asked for more stringent infection-control guidelines.

U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills; Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair; and Keith Rothfus, R-Edgeworth, asked VA leaders to set up written guidelines outlining duties and responsibilities for infection control, the lawmakers said afterward in a joint statement.

“Moving forward, we want to make sure every precaution is being taken to control Legionella and give the best possible care to any veteran in the Pittsburgh region,” the House members said.

Moreland and Wolf declined interview requests through Pittsburgh VA spokesman David Cowgill.

The bonuses, referred to by the VA as “awards,” are given at a time when cost-of-living increases for federal employees have remained frozen since 2012 by executive order, Cowgill acknowledged.

In addition, VA officials in recent years eliminated retention bonuses for nurses and police, Dahl said. Bonuses for unionized employees typically range from $50 to $250, she said.

Cowgill said employees are eligible to participate in the VA's Employee Awards and Recognition Program, which recognizes the accomplishments of employees both as individuals and as members of groups or teams. He said facility directors are authorized to approve as much as $5,000 in individual awards and $16,000 for group awards. When asked if those amounts have ever been awarded, he told a reporter to file a Freedom of Information request.

The VA Inspector General's Healthcare Inspections division this week issued a report showing a series of failures that contributed to the outbreak from February 2011 through November 2012. The Trib revealed on Thursday that the inspector general is conducting a separate criminal probe into the outbreak.

“VA leadership's poor oversight of the Legionella problem put our veterans and our employees at risk. They must be held accountable,” said Alma Lee, AFGE National VA Council President. “This report shows us where the VA dropped the ball. Now we must keep the pressure on to ensure that either Mr. Moreland, or those who find his performance acceptable, is held accountable.”

Luis Fábregas, Mike Wereschagin and Adam Smeltz are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Fábregas can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com. Wereschagin can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com. Smeltz can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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