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Building trust vital for new Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh director

Wesley Venteicher
PTRVAdirector2012216jpg
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Karin McGraw is the new director of VA Pittsburgh.

Joining an organization that was criticized from all sides for concealing a deadly disease outbreak four years ago, the new director of the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System said she hopes to build trust with the community through communication and transparency.

Karin McGraw, 58, is the system's first permanent director since June 2014, when VA leadership placed Director Terry Gerick Wolf on leave. Wolf was fired later that year for her handling of a Legionnaires' disease outbreak in 2011 and 2012 during which six veterans died and 16 were sickened.

A series of interim directors have held the top job in Pittsburgh since.

In nearly 30 years working with veterans at the Beckley VA Medical Center in West Virginia, McGraw said she learned the simple key to building trust.

“I think it's just communication,” she told the Tribune-Review. “And when you have problems identified and you say you're going to address it, successfully addressing that so that the veterans and the employees, the congressional partners (and) the community partners, they see that they can trust our word.”

VA Pittsburgh has said it has a new dedication to transparency. The system has announced findings of Legionnaires' that haven't affected patients, publicized potential patient exposure to tuberculosis and released information on a mold finding that the system said didn't affect patients. The system in December acknowledged two other mold findings after the Tribune-Review called, based on an anonymous tip.

McGraw started work as an intensive care unit nurse at the Beckley VA shortly after graduating from West Virginia University in 1979.

“Within my first few months of being there, I realized that that was my calling,” she said.

“When you hear about (veterans') stories, whether it was on a war front or if it was just the fact of being away from their families when they served in the military; when you listen to what they did and how committed and how much they love our country and how much they love our freedoms and the Constitution and they believe so much in what they did — I can't give them enough back to thank them for the sacrifices that they made,” she said.

She worked in the ICU for 11 years before becoming an associate chief in 1991. She then became service line chief, associate director and then director, a post she held from 2008 until the beginning of this year.

Michael Stelacio, department commander of the Pennsylvania American Legion, said the group has had mixed experiences with the directors who have come through the VA in the past few years.

“There have been some who would communicate with us and some who wouldn't,” he said.

Stelacio said he is positive about McGraw's tenure, saying she struck him as genuine in a recent meeting.

McGraw said she worked at Beckley to keep pace with technological advances in the private sector. Advances included building an inpatient chemotherapy unit so veterans didn't have to travel to other facilities for the treatment. Most recently, she worked to move MRI scans into the hospital.

She learned that providing a satisfactory experience at the VA medical center requires more than just providing health care, she said. After learning of parking complaints, Beckley instituted a valet system and then built a parking garage, she said. Another patient satisfaction initiative focuses on decreasing the use of recordings and answering machines when veterans call the medical center, she said.

The center worked closely with the Veterans Benefits Administration to help veterans settle benefits claims over which the health care branch does not have direct authority, she said.

McGraw will take over a VA center in Pittsburgh that serves about 70,000 veterans with about 3,500 employees. Beckley serves about 38,000 veterans with about 780 employees. The Pittsburgh center performs more complicated surgeries and procedures.

McGraw said she is up to the challenges.

“I felt like this was where God was leading me, and I look forward to getting out and visiting veterans,” she said. “That has been my focus.”

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or [email protected].

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