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Victims' families expected at congressional hearing on Legionnaires' disease outbreak in VA hospitals

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By Adam Smeltz
Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

A top health care administrator for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will join at least two Allegheny County families Monday at a congressional hearing on fatal failures and executive bonuses in VA hospital systems.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs scheduled the hearing for the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown, several miles from the Legionnaires' disease outbreak blamed in five veterans' deaths in 2011 and 2012. Relatives of two Legionnaires' victims — John J. Ciarolla of North Versailles and William E. Nicklas of Hampton — will appear on a seven-member witness panel at 9 a.m., the committee reported Friday.

“They asked us to tell our story, and that's what we're going to try to do,” said Maureen Ciarolla of Monroeville, a daughter of John Ciarolla who wants executives ousted from the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. “I think of (the hearing) as a positive move.”

For a second panel, committee leadership invited 10 administrators representing beleaguered VA health care systems across the country, including Pittsburgh-based regional Director Michael Moreland and Pittsburgh VA CEO Terry Gerigk Wolf.

Dr. Robert A. Petzel, the national VA undersecretary for health, told the committee that he would appear, though a VA spokesman did not respond to questions from the Tribune-Review. Pittsburgh VA spokesman David Cowgill said Moreland would appear as a witness and that Wolf would attend.

Moreland and Wolf received performance bonuses of $15,619 and $12,924, respectively, for fiscal year 2011 — part of the Legionnaires' outbreak period.

Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, said their attendance would be helpful.

“I do think it's important to have the folks closest to the situation be on the record. We look forward to the day we have their testimony,” said Rothfus, one of several Pittsburgh-area lawmakers expected at the hearing.

It will mark the second congressional hearing on the Legionnaires' outbreak, the first having been held Feb. 5 in Washington.

At least 21 patients probably or definitely acquired the disease from bacteria-contaminated water at Pittsburgh VA campuses in Oakland and O'Hara, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But an investigation by the Tribune-Review traced the contamination as far back as 2007, raising the possibility that earlier patients might have been sickened with the respiratory ailment.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for Western Pennsylvania and the federal VA Office of Inspector General have announced independent reviews of the outbreak and itshandling.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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