VA fires Western Pennsylvania director following Legionnaires’ outbreak
Former Director Terry Gerigk Wolf likely will be the only person fired for a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System, Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said Thursday.
The VA announced it fired Wolf hours before Gibson told Congress that hers was the only disciplinary case he was able to reopen when he re-examined the outbreak. At least six veterans died and 16 were sickened during the outbreak at VA Pittsburgh in Oakland and O’Hara.
“The question I was asking was, ‘Were there instances of misconduct or management negligence where accountability actions should have been taken that have not been taken?’ ” Gibson said in response to a question by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair. “In every instance where there was some culpability identified, there had been some action taken.”
Harsher discipline could have been handed out, but Gibson lacked new evidence to reopen their cases, he said during a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.
Wolf didn’t return calls.
Her firing, almost exactly two years after the VA publicly disclosed the outbreak, caps a series of investigations, lawsuits and recriminations from Congress and veterans’ families. Investigators determined that systemic management problems caused the outbreak.
An award-winning Tribune-Review investigation detailed attempts to downplay or outright hide the danger from Legionella bacteria in the hospitals’ water systems.
Murphy and others questioned why the VA brass fired Wolf while allowing her superior, former VA regional Director Michael Moreland, to retire with a five-figure bonus and promoting her deputy, David Cord, to lead the Erie VA Medical Center.
“It sends a terrible message to the employees of the VA system that, you know what, if you hide information, even though people die, you’re going to get promoted,” Murphy said. “…The comments I’ve heard from employees of the VA is, ‘What are we supposed to do?’ Whistle-blowers get fired. Whistle-blowers get demoted. We get disparaged.’ ”
VA executives suspended Wolf from her approximately $180,000-a-year job with pay in June. The department’s Office of Accountability Review recommended her dismissal Oct. 3 when it investigated how she handled the outbreak.
Reviewers upheld “allegations of conduct unbecoming of a senior executive and wasteful spending,” the VA said in a brief news release that did not elaborate or even name Wolf directly.
Wolf appealed the dismissal recommendation, according to the VA. Though the VA’s appeal process is supposed to last five days, hers lasted more than 40.
A local spokesman referred questions to department headquarters in Washington, where spokeswoman Ramona Joyce said she could not discuss the matter beyond the news release.
“This removal action underscores VA’s commitment to hold leaders accountable and get veterans the care they need,” the VA said in the statement. It said the department will begin recruiting for a new director while Dr. David Macpherson continues serving as interim director.
While lawmakers welcomed Wolf’s ouster, a union president representing 2,500 Pittsburgh VA workers said the dismissal sends a muddled message to employees. The labor organizer called it “an awful close connection” that the VA suspended Wolf soon after she alerted Congress to an internal wait list for appointments at VA Pittsburgh that included more than 600 veterans.
“It’s exactly what our employees go through when they expose the truth. When they start exposing the truth, they’re retaliated against. That’s what this appears to be,” said Kathi Dahl, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2028.
During the hearing, Murphy accused Cord of lying to him about the existence of a wait list and asked Gibson to investigate. Cord declined comment.
Families of outbreak victims renewed their own calls for transparency. Judy Nicklas said the VA should reveal who else it punished over the outbreak, even if it’s too late to impose a tougher round of sanctions.
“Even though Terry Wolf had her hands deep in the pot, it looks like she’s the sacrificial lamb for everyone. … Everyone who had their hands involved in that needs to be held accountable,” said Nicklas, whose father-in-law, Navy veteran William E. Nicklas of Hampton, died in the outbreak.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined the outbreak probably lasted from February 2011 until November 2012. The Trib investigation revealed alarming levels of Legionnaires’-causing bacteria at the VA Oakland campus as early as 2007, but the CDC declined to review the documents the newspaper obtained.
Wolf became director of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System in 2007, taking over for Moreland.
“The VA needs to hold all of them responsible,” said Maureen Ciarolla of Monroeville, whose father, Navy veteran John Ciarolla of North Versailles, died in the outbreak. “If you don’t, what prevents this from happening again?”