Congressman Keith Rothfus

Representing the 12th District of Pennsylvania

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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: VA office advises firing Pittsburgh director over Legionnaires' outbreak

Oct 6, 2014
In The News

Terry Gerigk Wolf, the suspended director of the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System, ought to be fired for her handling of the deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak, VA investigators said Friday.

The VA's Office of Accountability Review investigators determined she engaged in “conduct unbecoming a senior executive,” according to a statement the VA issued Friday. The agency did not specify the conduct involved, and a spokeswoman said she had no details.

In June, then-Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson placed Wolf on paid leave from her $179,700-a-year post because of her role during the outbreak, in which at least six veterans died and at least 16 were sickened between February 2011 and November 2012, when it was publicly disclosed.

Wolf, 55, did not return a call to her home. She can respond to the report's findings before VA Secretary Robert McDonald decides whether to fire her, according to the VA statement.

“When something bad happens, I take ultimate responsibility,” Wolf told the Tribune-Review in April 2013.

VA spokeswoman Ramona Joyce did not know how long Wolf has to respond or whether she will continue to receive a paycheck during that time.

“What happened to our veterans in Pittsburgh was a betrayal, plain and simple,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton. “This announcement is an important step, but certainly not the end of what needs to be done to bring justice to the impacted families and full accountability for those responsible for the way the outbreak was handled.”

Dr. David MacPherson, chief medical officer of the regional Veterans Integrated Service Network 4, became interim director of the VA Pittsburgh after Wolf's suspension. He'll serve as acting director while VA leaders find a permanent replacement, the release said. The Pittsburgh-based network includes hospitals in most of Pennsylvania and all or parts of five other states.

VA leaders came under withering criticism from members of Congress and the families of veterans affected by the outbreak, who repeatedly demanded that they discipline top officials in Pittsburgh. The outcry sparked a range of changes to how VA hospitals operate nationwide, including the requirement that they report infectious disease outbreaks to state health departments.

But a perceived lack of accountability among those who ran the VA Pittsburgh hospital system stoked outrage in Congress and among veterans.

Wolf's boss, Michael Moreland, gave her a perfect performance review and a $13,000 bonus during the outbreak.

Maureen Ciarolla, daughter of Navy veteran John Ciarolla, who died during the outbreak, said she was “ecstatic” that a top official faced discipline, but added that more needs to be done.

“Do we pay her pension for the rest of her life, her health care, because she was a government employee?” asked Ciarolla, 61, of Monroeville.

She also noted that Moreland has not faced discipline.

Moreland, who closed a VA lab that researched Legionnaires' disease when he served as director of the VA Pittsburgh, accepted a White House-approved $63,000 bonus just days after the VA's Office of Inspector General released a report detailing systemic failures that led to the outbreak. Moreland quit in November.

“The days of executive bonuses and job promotions for mismanagement are over,” said U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair.

The VA's announcement of the Accountability Office's recommendation occurred a day after McDonald received a letter signed by Murphy and five other Republicans in Congress demanding more information about who was disciplined for the outbreak and how.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Lehigh County and Reps. Keith Rothfus of Sewickley, Mike Kelly of Butler, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida, and Mike Coffman of Colorado, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, signed the letter as well.

“Our men and women who served in uniform should be first in line for the best quality medical care in the world. The outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at the Pittsburgh VA facility clearly shows that local VA management failed at achieving this goal,” Toomey wrote in an email. “... It's about time that our veterans get some accountability at the VA.”

A Trib investigation found patients diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease and dangerous levels of the Legionella bacteria in the hospitals' water systems as far back as 2007, the year Wolf took over as Pittsburgh director. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declined the Trib's offer to review records the newspaper obtained showing the problems went on long before the time frame it determined for the outbreak.