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House committee to convene Pittsburgh hearing on Legionnaires outbreak at VA hospitals

Stymied by delays and frustrated by what they call a lack of accountability, federal lawmakers plan to bring their investigation of Veterans Affairs hospitals into the VA Pittsburgh’s backyard.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs is scheduled to convene a hearing on Sept. 9 in Pittsburgh about infectious disease outbreaks in VA hospitals across the country and the tens of thousands of dollars in performance bonuses given to leaders of those hospitals.

The hearing is slated to begin at 9 a.m. in the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown, across the Allegheny River from the North Shore office of VA Regional Director Michael Moreland. Moreland, former head of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, received a $63,000 bonus shortly before the VA Pittsburgh disclosed a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak linked to at least 21 illnesses and five deaths.

“Other than management at the VA, we have not heard or read of one person who believes that the (VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System) management is capable of performing the most basic tasks assigned to any hospital employee — public, private or government-operated — protecting and caring for our veterans,” said Judy Nicklas, daughter-in-law of William Nicklas, an 87-year-old Navy veteran who died Nov. 23 of Legionnaires contracted at the Oakland VA hospital. His family sued the VA on Friday.

VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has criticized VA leaders for failing to provide records Congress requested and for failing to hold anyone to account for the fatal outbreak, despite several VA Inspector General reports citing management failures.

“VA takes seriously issues that occur at any of our individual facilities, and we will continue to work collaboratively with Congress and other stakeholders to conduct oversight of our operations in support of our mission of serving Veterans and their families,” VA spokeswoman Ndidi Mojay said in an email to the Trib.

The hearing likely will include testimony from veterans, family members and VA executives responsible for facilities in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Dallas, Buffalo and Jackson, Miss.

Investigations suggest mistakes in those facilities exposed patients to infectious diseases. In several cases, including Pittsburgh, those in charge received large bonuses despite the mistakes.

“The purpose of this hearing is to examine whether the VA has the proper management and accountability structures in place to stop the emerging pattern of preventable veteran deaths and serious patient-safety issues at VA medical centers across the country,” according to an announcement released on Monday by committee spokesman Curt Cashour.

Federal public health investigators who looked into the Legionnaires’ outbreak in VA hospitals in Oakland and O’Hara linked it to 21 illnesses from February 2011 to November 2012. A Tribune-Review investigation revealed that elevated levels of Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires, was found in the hospital’s water at least as far back as 2007, and a sixth family claims their loved one contracted the deadly form of pneumonia in the veterans hospital and then died.

“It seems like the VA hasn’t been transparent, and I think the veteran community has that interpretation,” said Ron Conley, director of veterans services for Allegheny County. “Hopefully, this hearing will restore that confidence to the VA.”

Mike Wereschagin and Adam Smeltz are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Wereschagin can be reached at 412-320-7900 or [email protected]. Smeltz can be reached at 412-380-5676 or [email protected].


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