U.S. Sen. Casey: New VA chief needs integrity

| Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, 11:57 p.m.

The Department of Veterans Affairs should appoint an experienced leader of “unquestioned, unassailable integrity” to shore up the Pittsburgh VA system because of the Legionnaires' disease outbreak blamed for five deaths, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey said this week.

In a letter to a top VA health care administrator in Washington, Casey called for a regional director who won't simply curb preventable deaths but will “bring a fresh vision” to invigorate Veterans Integrated Service Network 4. The North Shore-based service area known as VISN4 includes the beleaguered VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and nine other VA medical centers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware.

“Government agencies or offices are sometimes very difficult to motivate. Sometimes people want to do things the way they've always done it,” said Casey, D-Scranton, a former state auditor general and treasurer.

Casey urged VA Undersecretary for Health Robert A. Petzel to consider “the necessary leadership skills that were not present” during the two-year outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at VA campuses in Oakland and O'Hara.

Federal reviewers found bacteria-tainted tap water sickened as many as 21 patients from February 2011 through November 2012, though a Tribune-Review investigation unearthed records of alarming Legionella bacteria levels as early as 2007.

The VISN4 director during the outbreak period, Michael E. Moreland, fell under intense scrutiny from lawmakers and victims' families when an internal review found the Pittsburgh VA failed to control the Legionella. Moreland, whose salary in 2012 was $179,700, retired on Nov. 1. He could not be reached on Thursday.

His successor, Gary W. Devansky, is serving on an interim basis, VA officials in Washington have said. They would not say this week when a permanent director might be named, how many candidates they might consider, or whether any VA workers or administrators were disciplined because of the outbreak.

A public directory of Pittsburgh VA executives appears unchanged, listing Terry Gerigk Wolf as CEO.

The VA “is committed to selecting the best-qualified candidate for the VISN4 director in order to serve the veterans in our region,” national VA officials said in a statement from spokeswoman Ramona Joyce. “Our mission is to provide the high-quality, safe and effective health care that veterans have earned and deserve.”

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Jeff Miller condemned what he termed a failure “to hold employees and executives accountable for the outbreak.”

Joyce said the VA is “reviewing administrative actions” and would respond to lawmakers. The review process dates at least to November, when U.S. Attorney David Hickton announced prosecutors identified no criminal wrongdoing in the outbreak's handling.

“It's well past time for VA leadership at all levels to mount a serious effort to end the culture of complacency that is engulfing the Veterans Health Administration and compromising patient safety,” said Miller, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. “The only way VA can succeed in this task is by empowering leaders who are committed to accountability and getting rid of those who aren't.”

Casey said Moreland's successor should inspire workers by example and challenge “the VA to be fully committed to excellence.”

“They need to find a qualified person who is a veteran, who has served in the forces. I think they will treat veterans a whole lot different,” said Maureen Ciarolla of Monroeville, whose father, John J. Ciarolla, died in the outbreak. “Nobody is held responsible for this thing.”

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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