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House VA chair calls retiring Moreland a 'poster child' for accountability issues

| Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, 11:00 a.m.

Veterans Affairs regional administrator Michael E. Moreland, whose oversight includes the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System where a deadly Legionnaires' outbreak spanned nearly two years, said on Friday that he will retire, effective Nov. 1.

Neither Moreland, 57, nor the Department of Veterans Affairs would discuss the reasons for his decision. The announcement was made three days after he said in an interview that he was entitled to a $63,000 bonus presented weeks before the VA publicly disclosed the outbreak in November 2012.

“His arrogance and insensitivity throughout the entire Legionnaires' disease tragedy was incredibly hurtful to the families of those who died and absolutely shocking to all veterans and taxpayers familiar with the ordeal,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. He called Moreland “the poster child for the widespread and systemic lack of accountability throughout the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

Moreland would not say exactly when he decided to leave his post, though he hinted on Tuesday that he could step down. He did not set a timeline at that point.

“These positions of leadership are always very challenging,” Moreland said then. “Not everyone agrees with what you do.”

Moreland repeated in the interview that the day-to-day operations of the VA Pittsburgh hospitals are the responsibility of the directors he oversees, including VA Pittsburgh CEO Terry Gerigk Wolf.

Lawmakers, union leaders and families denounced Moreland's leadership during and after the disease outbreak that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said was linked to at least five veterans' deaths and 16 others sickened at VA Pittsburgh campuses in Oakland and O'Hara.

There have been congressional hearings on the matter, and there are ongoing criminal reviews by the VA Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh.

Moreland was awarded the $63,000 bonus as part of a Presidential Rank Award approved by the White House to honor his career. He has declined to return the money despite congressional pressure and outrage from the families of veterans who died in the outbreak, which the CDC tied to preventable bacteria in hospital tap water.

A Tribune-Review investigation in June revealed critical problems with water bacteria and patient testing at the Oakland VA hospital as far back as 2007, raising the possibility that more veterans could have fallen ill with the Legionnaires' form of pneumonia.

Another Trib investigation in September reported on how some former Moreland associates landed lucrative consulting contracts with the VA.

“It's a blessing (Moreland) is moving on,” said William Cleveland, department commander for the Pennsylvania American Legion and a member of Post 908 in Scranton. “The VA needs someone who can show more concern for the veterans rather than someone who talks and talks and does nothing.”

VA officials would not say how or when a successor might be named to replace Moreland, who has worked since December 2006 as director of Veterans Integrated Service Network 4. The Pittsburgh-based regional network of 10 medical centers and 43 outpatient clinics serves all but a few Pennsylvania counties and into five other states.

A spokeswoman at VA national headquarters in Washington referred questions about Moreland's retirement to Pittsburgh VA spokesman David Cowgill. He limited his comments to a bulleted list of achievements during Moreland's 34-year federal career, which includes several years Moreland spent as director of the Butler and Pittsburgh VA systems.

The list did not mention the Legionnaires' outbreak. Moreland and other local VA executives were not made available through Cowgill for interviews.

Leaders of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 2,500 Pittsburgh VA workers, urged investigators to maintain the pressure for accountability. The AFGE asked national VA leaders in February to suspend and investigate Moreland — a move echoed in a resolution approved on Thursday at the Allegheny County Labor Council.

AFGE Local 1916 President Frances Wright said leadership failures by Moreland, including the closure of a VA pathogens lab in 2006, led to the Legionnaires' outbreak. Moreland has disputed that, saying in the interview that the lab was closed over improper usage.

In a four-paragraph memorandum on Friday to VA workers, Moreland did not mention the Legionnaires' outbreak. He focused instead on “the magnificent work we accomplished together in improving the lives of those veterans who have entrusted their health care to us.”

Moreland said he announced his retirement “with mixed emotions,” while Cowgill touted his boss' efforts to strengthen health care for rural veterans, women and minorities.

Army veteran Matthew Stevison hopes Moreland's exit will result in needed changes to the system.

“Getting the bonus is just not right,” said Stevison, 41, of Clarksburg, W.Va., who is undergoing treatment in the Oakland hospital for a brain tumor. “Our health care should be a priority, especially for someone in his position. I think things will start looking up.”

Adam Smeltz and Luis Fábregas are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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