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Veterans Affairs execs who quit can avoid discipline, agency leader tells Congress

By Adam Smeltz and Mike Wereschagin
Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, 10:39 p.m.
 

Veterans Affairs officials can escape punishment for deadly lapses on their watch if they quit before they're disciplined, one of the agency's top leaders told Congress on Wednesday.

“It is their right to resign,” Dr. Robert Petzel, undersecretary of health for the VA, told the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health Oversight.

Families of victims of a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System have called for former VA regional director Michael Moreland to face consequences for the deaths of at least six veterans tied to the outbreak from February 2011 to November 2012. Moreland resigned from his Pittsburgh-based post Nov. 1 after collecting tens of thousands of dollars in performance bonuses during his last two years.

The VA was “forbidden” from punishing anyone while criminal investigations were under way, Petzel told the subcommittee. Those investigations ended three months ago, and David Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, said his office found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

“I'm hoping that very quickly we will have the evaluation of disciplinary action at Pittsburgh concluded and we'll know what we're going to do,” Petzel said.

The subcommittee called the hearing to air concerns that the VA avoids disciplining officials who preside over deadly lapses such as the Pittsburgh outbreak, which a Tribune-Review investigation showed involved Legionella bacteria that had been found in the water system years before.

In a VA hospital in Columbia, S.C., at least six veterans died after months-long waits delayed their diagnoses and treatments. Three officials resigned.

“There is no way to hold them accountable when people die because of their failures?” Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan, asked during the hearing.

“If somebody wishes to retire or resign, we cannot prevent that from happening,” said Petzel, who said in September that he'll retire this year.

Moreland, former director of Pittsburgh-based Veterans Integrated Service Network 4, received White House approval for a $63,000 lifetime performance bonus shortly before the outbreak was publicly confirmed in November 2012. VISN 4 covers most of Pennsylvania and all or part of five other states. In the same year, he received a $16,000 performance bonus.

Judy Nicklas of Adams, a daughter-in-law of World War II veteran William Nicklas of Hampton, who died during the outbreak, expressed frustration over the VA's internal personnel review and some of the testimony before the subcommittee.

“Why does this take so long, really?” she asked. “My father-in-law passed away a year and four months ago. Have they not been thinking about the kinds of disciplinary action they would take?”

Petzel downplayed the severity of Pittsburgh's outbreak during the hearing, suggesting only one veteran died because of the disease, rather than the six whose deaths have been linked to it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 21 veterans were probably or definitely sickened during the outbreak, five of whom died within a month of diagnosis. A sixth Legionnaires'-related death since has been connected to the VA Pittsburgh during the outbreak.

Petzel did not explain why he thought only one patient died because of the outbreak, perhaps because the veterans involved had other health conditions or Legionnaires' was listed as the secondary cause on some death certificates. Several families have sued the VA over the deaths.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, said in a statement that Petzel's statements “are an indication that the VA is still in denial about what occurred and the impact this has had on the victims' families.”

A lawyer for the Nicklas family said the VA admitted it was negligent in treating him for Legionnaires' but has not admitted he died of the disease.

Nicklas checked into the Oakland hospital Nov. 1 because he was dehydrated and having an adverse reaction to new heart medication. He contracted Legionnaires' disease in the hospital; his health deteriorated rapidly, and he died Nov. 23.

“This is all about protecting themselves because of the lawsuits. Why didn't they think about protecting the veterans?” said Maureen Ciarolla, daughter of Navy veteran John Ciarolla, who died during the outbreak.

Adam Smeltz and Mike Wereschagin are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Smeltz at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com. Reach Wereschagin at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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