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Union calls for ouster of regional VA exec over Legionnaires' outbreak

Friday, March 1, 2013, 7:39 p.m.

A national union representing hundreds of Allegheny County health care workers said Friday that it is seeking the removal of a top VA regional administrator while an investigation is conducted into his leadership during an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Pittsburgh and in other matters.

The American Federation of Government Employees sent a two-page letter to VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki about the Pittsburgh-based administrator, Michael Moreland, who oversees more than 50 Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers and outpatient clinics in Veterans Integrated Service Network 4. One of 21 regional VA health care networks nationwide, VISN4 includes nearly all of Pennsylvania, Delaware, southern New Jersey, northern West Virginia, four bordering counties in Ohio and Chautaqua County, N.Y.

“Mr. Moreland, I just don't believe, is worthy of the public's trust anymore,” AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. told the Tribune-Review after outlining the union's problems with Moreland and other regional VA officials in the letter.

Cox said Moreland “has clearly demonstrated retaliation to employees and ignored situations such as in Pittsburgh, where there was harm to veterans.

“He had knowledge of things and did not react and deal with it,” Cox said.

Moreland did not respond to a request for comment.

Pittsburgh VA spokesman David Cowgill referred the inquiry to VA national spokesman Mark Ballesteros in Washington. Ballesteros said department officials are reviewing Cox's letter and would respond to the union.

VA leadership promoted Moreland to a VISN director post in 2006. He spoke before a congressional subcommittee hearing on Feb. 5, when lawmakers queried public officials about a Legionnaires' outbreak traced to contaminated tap water at the Oakland and O'Hara VA campuses.

Five died among 21 VA patients believed to have contracted the Legionnaires' form of pneumonia in those facilities between January 2011 and November 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Moreland testified at the hearing that he first heard concerns about the Legionnaires' cases in fall 2011. Although cases at that point were not linked to the VA facilities, he said, the Pittsburgh VA flushed the plumbing to try eliminating any Legionella — the waterborne bacteria that causes the disease.

AFGE lawyer J. Ward Morrow said it is shocking that Moreland did not alert patients and staff to the problem sooner. Workers have said they were not told of the outbreak until November 2012 — the same time that the VA informed the public through the media.

“At a minimum, in the interest of the patients who have died, a full and fair investigation there is vital,” said Morrow, assistant general counsel for the union.

He and Cox cited other issues under Moreland's leadership. They include an associate VA director in Pittsburgh suggesting that AFGE Local 2028 President Kathi Dahl could pretend to be sick and avoid appearing at the congressional hearing, Dahl testified last month.

The “highly acclaimed” Special Pathogens Laboratory at the Oakland VA that had been conducting research into Legionnaires' was shuttered under Moreland, Cox wrote to Shinseki. The lab's director, Dr. Victor Yu, was fired and his research colleague, Janet Stout, later resigned.

Staff writer Lou Kilzer contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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