Families of Legionnaires victims deserve better of Veterans Affairs, others

Luis Fábregas
| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

No one is accountable. No one is responsible. No one did anything wrong.

In the eyes of local U.S. Attorney David Hickton, the FBI and the Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General, no one committed a federal crime when Legionnaires' disease killed at least five veterans and sickened at least 16 others in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

Pardon me while I pick my jaw up off the floor.

A family member of one of the dead veterans called the lack of charges a slap in the face, but trust me when I tell you she was being kind. This is no slap in the face. This is a full-blown smack on the head with a sledgehammer.

This has to be the most confusing whodunit in the history of medical nightmares. At least five people are dead and no one is responsible? Poof, they just died?

If you recall, this very tragic misadventure began when Legionella bacteria lurking in the water lines attacked veterans who were patients in the VA's facilities on University Drive in Oakland and in O'Hara. Patients who inhale water mist contaminated with Legionella bacteria can develop a nasty — and potentially fatal — form of pneumonia.

“The focus of our work was not to determine exactly how many patients contracted the disease, but rather whether there was evidence of any material false statements by VA officials or employees, and whether there was evidence justice had been obstructed in any way,” Hickton said in a statement.

It's been well documented that the outbreak, which the VA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say likely occurred from February 2011 through November 2012, happened because of systemic failures that allowed the bacteria to flourish. In an April report, the VA Office of Inspector General outlined point after point of head-scratching breakdowns: inadequate maintenance of the water treatment system used to disinfect the lines; failure to routinely flush hot water faucets and showers; failure to test patients with hospital-acquired pneumonia for Legionnaires' through a urine test; and inconsistent communication and coordination between VA departments.

Union leader Kathi Dahl said at a congressional hearing that VA Pittsburgh Associate Director Lovetta Ford told her to call in sick to avoid testifying before Congress. If that's not obstruction, I don't know what is.

Hickton tells us there is no basis for charging anyone? What is the message he's trying to send the families of those who died, veterans who risked their lives so we have the freedom to celebrate Thanksgiving next week?

Hickton said investigators interviewed high-level hospital officials, maintenance workers and outside contractors. I assume that includes Michael Moreland, the former head of VA Pittsburgh and most recently the regional director of Pittsburgh-based Veterans Integrated Service Network 4 until his recent retirement. Just before the VA Pittsburgh outbreak was announced in November 2012, Moreland collected a $63,000 bonus for his years of excellent service.

What Hickton didn't tell us in his statement is that in their “thorough” review of this matter over nine months, investigators didn't talk to a member of all of the families who lost a veteran. What, their accounts might not produce something useful?

One cannot help but feel for those families. Their only hope is that VA officials in Washington will do the right thing and reprimand or fire those responsible.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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