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Hold Pa. VA execs accountable for Legionnaires’ cover-up |
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Hold Pa. VA execs accountable for Legionnaires’ cover-up

In recent weeks, Americans have learned a few lessons about responding to infectious disease outbreaks, as Ebola has made its first appearances in the United States. One of those lessons is that public safety depends upon officials communicating the facts about a potentially dangerous outbreak in a timely and clear manner. The failure to meet that standard has shocked many Americans and undermined trust in the government.

But Pennsylvania military veterans who receive medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs Healthcare System in Pittsburgh probably weren’t completely surprised by the failure, after a 2011-12 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak there left six veterans dead and 16 sickened.

Rather than alert affected veterans and their families, Pittsburgh VA officials moved to cover up the outbreak. Now, one of the architects of that cover-up, Deputy Director David Cord, is being promoted to director of the Erie VA — a fact that will lead many veterans to question if anyone will be held accountable for the VA’s failures that killed six patients.

The Pittsburgh VA Legionnaires’ disease outbreak stemmed from poor sanitation in the facility’s water system. An investigation found poor recordkeeping, lack of oversight and testing failures that led to significant gaps in sanitation practices. As a result, the bacteria thrived in the water system for months.

What happened next is an even greater outrage, as Pittsburgh VA officials undertook a systematic campaign to conceal the outbreak. Emails from 2012 that came to light this year reveal how Cord urged a VA spokesman not to publicize the outbreak. The spokesman wrote that Cord “does not want to be proactive and go to the media with the statement.”

That approach was potentially dangerous. Veterans who had been treated at the Pittsburgh VA, as well as their families and hospital workers, deserved to know that there was a potentially dangerous outbreak in the facility. Would making that knowledge public have forestalled further infections? It’s possible.

So how has the VA held the executives responsible for this disaster accountable? Terry Gerigk Wolf, the director of the Pittsburgh VA at the time of the outbreak, received a perfect performance review and was awarded a $13,000 bonus. Once news of the outbreak became public, an embarrassed VA suspended her (with pay, of course) and recommended she be fired.

It appears Cord will face no such accountability for his role in mismanaging the crisis. Instead, he gets a promotion.

The VA’s dysfunction stretches far beyond the failures of a single executive. As we’ve learned from other VA scandals this year, the department too often seems more committed to protecting bureaucrats than serving veterans.

I know there are a great many VA employees who are appalled by the department’s failures of management and accountability. As a disabled veteran myself, I’ve been fortunate to receive good care from many such professionals at the VA facility in Butler. But not all are so lucky. I’ve heard from many others about interminable waits for care, scheduling snafus, unclean facilities and shoddy service.

The VA’s leadership needs to turn things around — and that starts with holding officials like David Cord accountable for their failures.

Sean Parnell, military adviser to Concerned Veterans for America, is a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger who served in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division.

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