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.