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VA chief's disciplinary powers would get boost under Miller bill

| Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, 12:02 a.m.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he plans to introduce legislation in response to the fatal Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and other significant health care failures scattered across the country.

Top executives at the nation's 152 Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers and regional directors could draw faster penalties for major leadership failures under a House bill expected to be introduced on Tuesday.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs committee, said he plans to introduce the legislation in response to the fatal Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and other significant health care failures scattered across the country. If approved, the measure would allow the VA secretary in Washington to fire directly or demote any VA senior executives for subpar job performance, according to a copy of the three-page bill obtained by the Tribune-Review.

“This legislation would give VA leaders a tool to address a problem that continues to get worse by the day. VA's widespread and systemic lack of accountability is exacerbating all of its most pressing problems, including the department's stubborn disability benefits backlog and a mounting toll of at least 31 recent preventable veteran deaths at VA medical centers across the country,” Miller said.

“While the vast majority of the VA's more than 300,000 employees and executives are dedicated and hard-working, the department's well-documented reluctance to ensure its leaders are held accountable for mistakes is tarnishing the reputation of the organization and may actually be encouraging more veteran suffering instead of preventing it,” he said.

VA spokeswoman Ramona Joyce said the department generally does not comment on pending legislation.

“At least in my observations, the nonprofessional administrative staff is just this self-perpetuating network. It seems to be beholden to no one except itself,” said W. Robb Graham, a Cherry Hill, N.J., attorney who specializes in VA malpractice cases. “If they're coming up with a way to begin getting rid of some of these directors and senior people, more power to them.”

VA officials in Washington have yet to make clear whether any Pittsburgh VA executives will be disciplined for the Legionnaires' outbreak.

Pittsburgh VA leaders were repeatedly criticized by lawmakers last year when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tied the Legionnaires' outbreak to Legionella-tainted tap water at VA campuses in Oakland and O'Hara. The water likely sickened at least 21 veterans from February 2011 to November 2012 as the Pittsburgh VA failed to control the common bacteria under standard hospital practices, the CDC found. Five of the patients died.

Pittsburgh VA CEO Terry Gerigk Wolf and her supervisor at the time, regional VA Director Michael Moreland, received performance bonuses of $12,924 and $15,619, respectively, for fiscal year 2011, which included part of the outbreak period.

Pending legislation in Congress would ban such bonuses for senior VA executives for five years and tighten disease-reporting requirements for all VA hospitals, among other new accountability standards. Miller has asked the VA for a review of its performance appraisal system.

Under current regulations, the Congressional Research Service found that senior VA executives who might face discipline are entitled to a variety of special considerations. They include written notice, at least 30 days in advance, that identifies specific reasons for proposed disciplinary action. Executives are permitted “a reasonable time” to respond and can file an appeal, among other options.

In a statement released by Joyce, VA officials in Washington said they have limited the number of senior executives who receive high rankings and “hold those responsible accountable” any time there's an “adverse incident.”

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676.

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