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Feds settle lawsuits over Legionnaires cases at VA Pittsburgh hospitals

| Friday, April 4, 2014, 3:06 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.

A settlement with the government is both a relief and a frustration for families of veterans who died in a Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Veterans Affairs hospitals in Pittsburgh.

“This has been the longest funeral we've ever been through,” Maureen Ciarolla of Monroeville said on Friday, emotion straining her voice. She had hoped VA personnel would be held accountable for the death of her father, Navy veteran John Ciarolla, 83, of North Versailles during the outbreak.

“I'm relieved it's over, but it's not nearly what they deserved,” said Debbie Balawejder, also of Monroeville. Her father, Frank “Sonny” Calcagno, 85, died Nov. 22, 2011. Although he died in Forbes Hospital in Monroeville, he spent six weeks in VA Pittsburgh facilities on Highland Drive and in Oakland.

The Justice Department agreed on Thursday to settle their claims and two others during negotiations in a mediator's office Downtown, according to attorney John Zervanos, who represented the Ciarolla and Calcagno families.

Families and their lawyers declined to talk about the details of the settlement, but it won't include discipline for the VA executives who presided over the outbreak, which sickened at least 22, six of whom died from February 2011 to November 2012.

“To me, what they did was criminal,” Balawejder said. “They're never going to pay the way they should for what they did.”

The VA referred questions to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.

In addition to the claims of Calcagno and Ciarolla, the government on Thursday agreed to settle the lawsuits brought by veterans George Christoff, 64, of Altoona, who served in Vietnam; and Gregory Darnell Jenkins, 54, of Edinboro in Erie County, who contracted the disease during stays in Pittsburgh VA facilities but recovered, Zervanos said.

The government previously reached an agreement in a fifth case with the family of World War II veteran William E. Nicklas, 87, of Hampton, whose death on Nov. 23, 2012, was the outbreak's last. Nicklas checked into VA Pittsburgh's University Drive hospital in Oakland for medication problems — after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told hospital leaders that patients were being sickened by the same strain of Legionella detected in the VA's water.

U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab on March 26 and on Friday entered orders in the Nicklas and Ciarolla cases suspending the lawsuits based on mediators' reports that the cases have been settled.

Harry S. Cohen, one of the lawyers for the Nicklas family, said they reached an agreement with the government last week and felt relieved but frustrated.

“It was with mixed feelings that they resolved the case. One hundred percent of their questions weren't answered,” he said.

Cohen declined to discuss the settlement amount. A mediation did not resolve the case, but the family agreed to settle on the day that Greta Nicklas, Nicklas' widow, was scheduled to be deposed, he said.

“The Nicklas family had an interest in not putting Mrs. Nicklas through the trauma of protracted litigation,” he said.

Schwab's order keeps the families and the government from having to spend money on preparing for trial while they complete the settlements and file formal motions to dismiss the lawsuits. If the agreement falls through, the judge can reactivate the case and let it proceed to trial.

“These settlements have nothing to do with holding the individuals responsible for their deaths accountable,” said U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley. Reps. Tom Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, as well as U.S. Sens. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, and Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, have been actively involved in the situation, Rothfus said, and “still have questions that the VA must answer.”

Chief among those questions is why VA executives in Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee received bonuses and positive performance reviews instead of punishment for allowing such negligence, said House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla. Former VA regional director Michael Moreland received approval for a $63,000 lifetime performance bonus shortly before the outbreak became public.

“What's worse, department officials have repeatedly pointed to nondisciplinary actions such as employee retirements and transfers or bureaucratic slaps on the wrist, such as temporary written warnings, in a disingenuous attempt to create the appearance of accountability,” Miller said.

Until the department holds executives accountable, “it is simply illogical” to think the VA will fix the problems, he said.

Brian Bowling and Mike Wereschagin are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Bowling at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com. Reach Wereschagin at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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