Erie VA chief denies hiding information on waiting list, Legionnaires’ while in Pittsburgh
The director of the Erie Veterans Affairs Medical Center said he didn’t try to hide information from Congress or the public about a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak or a waiting list while he was deputy director of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.
Allegations that he did so became part of a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing last week when Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, accused David Cord of misleading him about the existence of a waiting list with 700 veterans on it, some of whom had waited more than a year for their first appointment. Cord said in an interview Tuesday with the Tribune-Review that he called Murphy to disclose the list, not hide it.
“I probably could’ve done a better job of articulating the message and the issue with the backlog,” Cord said during the interview. He said he takes responsibility for what he characterized as poor communication.
The list, called the New Enrollee Employment Request List, included veterans trying to enroll in VA health care for the first time.
“You learn with the good things and bad things that you do as you move throughout your career. Clearly, moving forward, I need to make sure that when I’m articulating a message, I’m doing so in a manner that’s clear” and that the person he’s talking to understands it, Cord said.
But Murphy said the problem went deeper than mere miscommunication. The conversations took place May 29, during a national outcry about secret waiting lists at the Phoenix VA.
Cord and his former boss, VA Pittsburgh Director Terry Gerigk Wolf — since fired — called Murphy “out of the blue,” the congressman said. Cord said no such lists exist at Pittsburgh, and that few veterans served by the health care system wait longer than 30 days for an appointment, Murphy said in a Congressional hearing Thursday.
“I was told months ago by local officials that Pittsburgh had passed a scheduling audit ‘with flying colors,’ only to learn minutes later (in a separate phone call with U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills) that, in fact, 700 southwestern Pennsylvania veterans had been waiting up to and over a year for medical care,” Murphy wrote to the Trib in an email.
Deputy VA Director Sloan Gibson told Murphy he would look into Murphy’s claim. Gibson suspended Wolf two weeks after she spoke to Murphy and Doyle. The VA announced it fired her on Nov. 13 for her role in handling a deadly Legionnaires’ outbreak.
At least six veterans died and 16 were sickened from February 2011 to November 2012, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the outbreak took place.
Cord became deputy director in Pittsburgh in June 2012, about five months before the VA publicly disclosed the outbreak. Cord said Tuesday that he never directed a spokesman to keep information about the outbreak from the public.
“I was always very proactive in wanting us to get the information out as soon as we had information to share, and to ensure that we were always sharing the most accurate and up-to-date information with our veterans and our stakeholders,” Cord said.
The charge that he tried to keep the outbreak quiet stems from an email former Pittsburgh VA spokesman David Cowgill wrote two days before the outbreak became public, on Nov. 14, 2012, to an aide of VA Pittsburgh Chief of Staff Dr. Ali Sonel. Cowgill wrote that Cord “does not want to be proactive and to go the media with a statement.”
But Tuesday, two years later, Cowgill said that he meant that Cord didn’t believe they had enough information on the day he sent that email to give an accurate statement to the public.
“In retrospect, the one word missing from my message was ‘today.’ The team from the CDC and county were still on site conducting their review, and we simply did not have all the facts gathered yet in order to do the public notification,” Cowgill said Tuesday in an email to the Trib. “Everything was completed in the next day or so and we were able to implement our communication plan on the morning of November 16th. Mr. Cord never instructed me to withhold information about the Legionnaires’ outbreak.”
Murphy remained unplacated.
“From the Legionella outbreak to the hidden wait lists, the former leadership regime at the Pittsburgh VA failed to serve our veterans,” Murphy said. “… I am going to do whatever it takes to ensure southwestern Pennsylvania veterans get the highest level care from an agency committed to the values of integrity, honesty and service.”
Cord disputed the characterization of the new enrollee list as a “hidden wait list,” and promised to run an open administration at his new post as director in Erie. Meetings with VA employees, veterans and reporters fill much of his first three days on the job.
“This is an organization that really is owned by our veterans,” Cord said.
A key takeaway for him from the Legionnaires’ outbreak, Cord said, is “you can never over-communicate.”
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or [email protected].