VA inspectors grill Pittsburgh workers
Top VA health officials in Washington dispatched medical inspectors to quiz dozens of Pittsburgh VA workers Tuesday over a deadly Legionnaires' outbreak, the latest of seven government investigations into the ordeal.
Officials targeted more than 40 employees for 15-minute interviews at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, a labor union said. The purpose of the inspectors' probe remained uncertain.
The American Federation of Government Employees represents many of the employees in the sessions, said AFGE assistant general counsel J. Ward Morrow.
Morrow described the interviewers as VA medical inspectors and said they largely asked about how staff tried to control the waterborne Legionella bacteria that cause Legionnaires' disease. Documents show VA medical inspectors report to the VA undersecretary for health, Dr. Robert Petzel.
“It seems they've been directed to find out how the abatement process has been working — or not. That's what they're doing, although they're not doing it as widely and as deeply as might be helpful,” Morrow said. “They are talking to a lot of people. Whether they're asking all the questions they possibly could ask — that's not clear.”
Pittsburgh VA spokesman David Cowgill referred an inquiry to the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, which did not answer questions about the interviews.
Instead, national VA spokeswoman Gina Jackson wrote via email, “VA shares the community's concerns about the prevalence of Legionella in Western Pennsylvania, and we sincerely apologize to any veterans and families who became ill or who have lost a veteran to this disease.” She said the VA would continue to improve its processes and control the bacteria.
Morrow said those interviewed include electricians, carpenters, mechanics, nurses and housekeeping workers. The sessions will continue through Thursday and could involve up to 80 workers, he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found as many as 21 veterans contracted the disease in Pittsburgh VA facilities from February 2011 to November 2012, though a Tribune-Review analysis of VA records found the problem might have been much worse.
Families and individuals have initiated at least five legal claims against the VA stemming from the outbreak. Questioning workers in internal interviews could help VA leadership to prepare for the litigation and the September hearing, independent legal observers said.
“You've got five claims out there and possibly more. It would not necessarily surprise me if the VA has gone out and used an independent consultant to do an investigation and try to coordinate experts' opinions” for the litigation, said W. Robb Graham, a Cherry Hill, N.J., attorney who specializes in VA malpractice cases.
He said the VA could use outside experts to help build a litigation strategy “just because of how screwed up things are.”
The AFGE and attorneys for the victims applauded the internal review.
“I think it's absolutely necessary, and there needs to be accountability,” said Butler-based attorney Bill Schenck, who represents widow Evelyn McChesney of Columbus in Warren County. “The press helps with accountability; the legal system helps with accountability; and the congressional investigations have helped with accountability. But the VA itself should be checking into accountability.”
McChesney's husband, John, is among the fatalities linked to the Legionnaires' outbreak, which the CDC traced to contaminated water at the VA campuses in Oakland and O'Hara. Families of the victims vowed to supply testimony for a Sept. 9 congressional hearing scheduled at the Allegheny County Courthouse, where the House Veterans Affairs Committee will focus on preventable deaths in the VA system.
The VA undersecretary of health began the Office of the Medical Inspector in 1980 to function as the Veterans Health Administration's investigative arm. Its approximately 20 employees are far fewer than the sprawling VA Office of Inspector General, which has offices in more than 20 states and investigates all VA departments.
The inspector general's office started three separate investigations after the Pittsburgh outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, a form of pneumonia. Conclusions from its criminal review in Pittsburgh have yet to be announced.
Medical inspectors, meanwhile, are “responsible for investigating the quality of medical care provided by the VHA (Veterans Health Administration),” according to a 2011 directive from Undersecretary Petzel, the official to whom the inspectors report.
Petzel last month ignored a Tribune-Review reporter's questions about the Pittsburgh outbreak, walking through a hallway and lobby with his eyes facing forward as the reporter walked beside him.
David J. Hickton, the U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania, has said his office will look into the outbreak and its handling.
“My prediction is that this is not the end,” Morrow said. “Between now and Sept. 9, I think there's going to be more coming out.”
Adam Smeltz and Mike Wereschagin are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Smeltz can be reached at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Wereschagin can be reached at 412-320-7900 or email@example.com.
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.
- Pittsburgh’s Downtown tops ranking of small to midsized cities
- Inmate care in Allegheny County Jail generates worries
- Long-term closures at Carnegie interchange on Parkway West to begin
- Icy streets leave some in Pittsburgh neighborhoods critical of city
- Interstate smash-and-grab jewelry ring may be operating in Pittsburgh area, Altoona
- Police say teen driver was drinking in Butler ATV crash that killed passenger
- Federal judge allows challenge to Sharpsburg’s landlord law
- Free speech wall rises at Carlow University
- McCandless mortgage broker company president charged with bank fraud conspiracy
- Amish boy stable after riding pony into intersection, being hit by car
- Passion for speed fuels Ligonier man’s slippery dash in winter rally