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House committee wants answers on Legionnaires' outbreak, could slash funds

Tom Fontaine
| Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, 1:06 p.m.
Robert Petzel (left), Department of Veterans Affairs under secretary for Health, talks with Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair and U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman following a field hearing with the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown on Monday Sept. 9, 2013.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Robert Petzel (left), Department of Veterans Affairs under secretary for Health, talks with Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair and U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman following a field hearing with the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown on Monday Sept. 9, 2013.
The Honorable Joan M. Mooney was nominated by President Obama to serve as Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs (OCLA) at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on June 23, 2009, confirmed by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on August 7, 2009 and sworn in by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki on August 10, 2009.
The Honorable Joan M. Mooney was nominated by President Obama to serve as Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs (OCLA) at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on June 23, 2009, confirmed by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on August 7, 2009 and sworn in by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki on August 10, 2009.

The chairman of a House committee threatened on Thursday to slash funding to a Veterans Affairs office that he said has taken too long to answer questions about a deadly Legionnaires' outbreak in Pittsburgh and other issues.

“If things don't improve materially, we'll have no choice but to reconsider the funding your office receives,” House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said during a hearing.

Miller said the VA was sitting on 72 committee requests for information. The oldest — a request for data on the VA's mental-health hiring practices — dates back 14 months.

Miller and Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said they're waiting for a reply on a January request for all documents and emails regarding Legionella bacteria or Legionnaires' disease at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare system since 2007. A Legionnaires' outbreak at the Oakland and O'Hara campuses killed at least five veterans and sickened at least 16 others between February 2011 and November 2012.

Joan A. Mooney, the assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs and sole VA representative to appear, described that request as a “large-scale data pull” that required VA workers to “focus and scope-down the search terms.”

Miller replied, “Probably if you put ‘Legionella' (and) ‘death,' those would be two pretty specific words that you could search pretty quickly.”

The Tribune-Review reported in June that VA water sample results showed Legionella bacteria present in large colonies in the Oakland hospital's water system as far back as 2007. Miller has criticized the VA for releasing information to the media while ignoring the committee's requests.

“Mrs. Mooney, the days where VA is more responsive to the media than a congressional oversight committee must end,” Miller said.

Since 2009, Miller said, the VA congressional and legislative office's budget and staffing have increased about 40 percent. The office is seeking $6 million in next year's budget.

Mooney said her Washington office has responded to 80,000 congressional requests for information since the 2009 fiscal year, including more than 2,000 formal policy-related requests in the first six months of this fiscal year. That didn't assuage committee members.

“I don't think you're incompetent. I think you're a very smart political operative. I think what you've engaged in is a process of systematically covering up information that is embarrassing to the Veterans Administration,” Coffman told Mooney.

If Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki “keeps you on after this hearing, then he's also complicit in that cover-up,” Coffman said.

Mooney repeatedly told lawmakers that she understood their concerns and would take them back to her bosses. She promised to provide answers to their questions soon — only once committing to an actual deadline.

Mooney told Rep. Jackie Walorski, D-Ind., she would call her by the middle of next week to provide a timetable for a delayed VA construction project in South Bend. Walorski said she's been waiting for the information for eight months.

“I really don't care if you care about my frustration. I want answers. Americans want answers,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.

Huelskamp said he asked 100 days ago for information about the potential exposure of thousands of veterans' identification and medical information to identity thieves. He said he has waited for a year to learn the cost of the 2011 National Veterans Golden Age Games in Honolulu.

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