Pittsburgh VA director distances himself from outbreak

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The Legionnaires' outbreak at the Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs Healthcare System that killed as many as six veterans may have become a national scandal over the past 10 months, but it is no bigger than any other major problem the regional VA director has faced.

"I've had lots of them," Michael Moreland, the VA's regional director here for nearly seven years, said in a wide-ranging, 45-minute interview Tuesday at his offices in the Del Monte Building on the North Shore.

And while it may seem like it must be a stressful time for him since the Pittsburgh VA first revealed in November that it had an outbreak, Mr. Moreland said for him, it is nothing compared to the stress of his first job for the VA as a clinical social worker 34 years ago.

"Let me tell you," he said, "stress is sitting at home on a Saturday night and a veteran calls you and says, 'I have a gun to my head. I'm going to kill myself, Mike.' That's stress."

The interview Tuesday with two reporters was the result of a promise made by Mr. Moreland's boss, Robert Petzel, the VA's undersecretary for health, to U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., during a congressional hearing in Pittsburgh three weeks ago.

During that hearing, for which Mr. Moreland was a witness, Mr. Miller, chairman of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee, made Dr. Petzel promise that all of the witnesses, including Mr. Moreland, would make themselves available to reporters after the hearing.

Since that hearing, during which Dr. Petzel was criticized heavily by committee members, Dr. Petzel has announced he would soon retire.

Mr. Moreland said Tuesday he did not plan to resign over the Legionnaires' crisis but hinted that he, like Dr. Petzel, might find another career sometime soon.

"I've got 34 years of federal service. I'm 57 years old. I have lots of energy to do something else," he said. "And it would not be unusual with someone with that history to find something different to do."

Mr. Moreland made it clear he'd rather not be taking questions about the Legionnaires' outbreak, and he sought to distance himself from any of the direct decisions that were made during the outbreak.

"I've got a lot of things going on in the [VA region], and the Legionnaires' crisis is nine months old," he said. "Mrs. [Terry] Wolf runs the [Pittsburgh VA where the outbreak occurred]. I've had two congressional hearings and met with the papers. I have 10 hospitals, 44 outpatient clinics and about $2.5 billion in budgets. Almost 13,000 people work for us.

"So, it's a huge complex, integrated health care system," he said. "I basically run the system through the hospital directors. It's not my job to meet with the plumbers. It's my job to look at the plan and approve of the plan" to run the hospitals.

After reading some of Mr. Moreland's interview quotes, Mr. Miller said in an emailed comment: "What arrogance. While it may not be Moreland's job to 'meet with the plumbers,' it certainly was his responsibility to protect veteran patients from preventable deaths -- a task at which he failed.

"Congress will not stand idly by while Moreland attempts to downplay this tragedy and VA drags its feet in providing crucial information that would help the victims of this disaster and Congress understand exactly what happened," Mr. Miller added.

While Mr. Moreland at times tried to portray himself during the interview as a man used to dealing with the pressures that a job managing 10 hospitals spread over three states brings, he bristled frequently during the interview when challenged about some of his basic assertions about how the Legionnaires' case occurred and some of the issues that it raised.

He became agitated when asked multiple times if he was going to give back a presidential award he received earlier this year, three days after the VA's inspector general issued a report laying the blame for the Legionnaires' outbreak on systemic problems and poor decisions at the Pittsburgh VA.

The Presidential Distinguished Rank award that came with a $63,000 bonus "is presented to a person for a career of service and I was honored to have received it," Mr. Moreland said.

Asked if he should not have considered the timing and how victims' families would perceive the award he accepted at a black-tie dinner in Washington, D.C., Mr. Moreland replied: "I understand that when families are in grief one of the responses is anger. The timing of the announcement of this was unfortunate."

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Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579.


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