VA Pittsburgh director lauded as Legionnaires' disease outbreak raged
The director of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System received top-level ratings on an evaluation from regional director Michael Moreland amid a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed at least five veterans and sickened at least 16 more under her watch, the Tribune-Review has learned.
CEO Terry Gerigk Wolf gave herself high praise for her performance over nearly two pages of the 11-page annual evaluation for the period Oct. 1, 2011, to Sept. 30, 2012, which the Trib obtained. Wolf said she exceeded expectations in all her duties, oversaw consolidation of three hospital campuses into two with the closing of the Highland Drive facility, strengthened ties with veterans and built workplace respect, among other accomplishments. Moreland gave her the top rating in five critical areas when signing off on the evaluation.
But neither Moreland nor Wolf mentioned in the evaluation the discovery of apparently deadly Legionella bacteria at critical levels in the water lines at the VA Pittsburgh.
“I don't know what's more disturbing: that five veterans are dead from a Legionnaires' disease outbreak VA Pittsburgh Healthcare officials were too incompetent to stop, or the fact that some of those same executives feel their dreadful mismanagement of the outbreak doesn't bear mentioning in their performance reviews,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Wolf and Moreland did not respond to Trib questions or a request for an interview. Pittsburgh VA spokesman David Cowgill would not say why Wolf's evaluation neglected to discuss Legionella.
“Mrs. Wolf has a long-standing history of successfully leading large, complex health care systems within the VA,” Cowgill wrote in the email. “She is an innovative leader in solving problems and moving the organization forward to face the ever-challenging and changing needs of providing first-rate health care to our nation's veterans.”
He said the assessment of Wolf, who took over as CEO in April 2007, followed a national VA plan for evaluating senior executives. It emphasizes five core categories: leading change, leading people, building coalitions, demonstrating business acumen and driving results.
Moreland gave Wolf the highest rating in each category. He said she “flawlessly executed” the $592 million budget for the Pittsburgh VA, helping to cut the workforce by about 5 percent — or 126 people — to free some money for “veteran-centered care initiatives.”
Wolf took nearly two pages to outline her achievements, including the management of more than $39.9 million in construction projects and the opening of two new buildings in O'Hara and Oakland. Wolf noted that the O'Hara facility features a putting green at a rehabilitation pavilion.
Twice during her evaluation period, Legionella bacteria hit levels considered alarming under national standards set by the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to test results obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later determined as many as 21 veterans contracted the waterborne bacteria — which can lead to a deadly pneumonia by breathing it in from showerheads or other water outlets — between February 2011 and November 2012 on the Oakland and O'Hara campuses.
A Trib investigation found Legionella levels reached threatening levels on five earlier occasions dating back to September 2007, leaving open the possibility that even more veterans were sickened with Legionnaires' disease. The CDC acknowledged it did not review water testing results back to 2007 and declined a Trib offer to receive the documents.
Judy Nicklas' father-in-law, World War II Navy veteran William E. Nicklas of Hampton, was among the five veterans who died in the outbreak period.
“This review appears to me to be a case of commanders pinning medals on their own chest while the soldiers are left dying in the fields,” said Nicklas, of Adams in Butler County. “I would urge every veteran to take a stance and protect the services to which they are entitled. Each and every veteran group should speak out to their congressmen and demand a change.”
Miller called Wolf's glowing evaluation “undeniable proof” that the VA needs to review its performance-appraisal system.
Wolf, whose base salary was listed at $179,700 for 2011, received no performance bonus for her work in fiscal year 2012, according to documents the VA released to the Trib. Under congressional pressure after a host of problems, VA officials in Washington said in April they would defer performance awards for some unspecified department executives.
Moreland and Wolf received performance bonuses of $15,619 and $12,924, respectively, for 2011. Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, called for accountability and transparency.
“While veterans are still waiting on average 300 days for their claims to be addressed, and knowing Legionella bacteria was a problem at the Oakland VA for five-plus years, it's hard to comprehend how performance bonuses are routinely approved for top hospital officials given the systemic failures they've presided over,” Murphy said.
Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Ross brothers ordered to pay fine, remove debris from Christmas display
- Newsmaker: Terri Liberto
- Pittsburgh councilwoman: Peduto seeks to reroute money from North Side project in retribution
- State law complicates Allegheny County proposal for letter grading of restaurants
- Pittsburgh police officers start wearing video cameras
- 12-year-old’s donated heart joins families, lets her memory live
- Beechview man arrested on child pornography charges
- Proposal to limit access divides Penn Hills, Homewood neighborhoods
- Rules hamper Franklin Regional attack victim scholarships
- Legal titans prepared to tussle in Ferrante cyanide homicide trial
- Western Pennsylvania residents chill about forecasters’ spat