U.S. Sen. Bob Casey today asked the White House chief of staff to change the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award program to try to prevent embarrassing awards such as the one given in April to the man who oversees the Veterans Affairs region that includes Pittsburgh.
Michael Moreland, director of the VA region and former director of the Pittsburgh VA, was given a $62,895 bonus with the honor -- the highest award a federal executive can receive from the government -- just three days after the VA inspector general released a report finding a variety of problems inside the Pittsburgh VA led to a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak here.
Families of the victims of the outbreak, leaders of a union representing VA employees, and politicians were upset by the award given to Mr. Moreland.
"While I understand Mr. Moreland was given this award for his implementation of the liver and kidney transplant program along with a program to reduce incidents of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)," Mr. Casey wrote in the letter sent Thursday to White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough, "he also was in charge during the recent outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that resulted in the deaths of five veterans and a subsequent report from the VA Office of the Inspector General noted systemic failures by the VA Pittsburgh Health System that Mr. Moreland oversees."
Mr. Casey, D-Pa., is asking that the award program add to its review process "a final check shortly before the award is made to ensure the individual truly is worthy of this award," he wrote.
In addition, he asks the White House to consider whether the 35 percent bonus given for the Distinguished level of the award, as well as the 20 percent bonus for the lesser Meritorious level award, is appropriate.
"While I share the administration's commitment to reward and honor our most distinguished civil servants, I question the need for such levels of compensation," he wrote. "It's my understanding the minimum rate of basic pay for Senior Executive Service members is $119,554. 35 percent of that is $41,843.90. The annual mean wage according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics is $45,790, not much more than the baseline bonus one would receive with this award."
An official said the White House could not respond to a letter it only just received. Mr. Casey said in an interview that he decided to send the letter now because he has been waiting to hear back about the White House's promised review of the program -- though the White House did suspend the bonus payments for recipients next year -- and the VA review of Mr. Moreland's award, but has heard nothing so far.
The White House review of the program continues, an official said. A VA spokesman in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for an update.
Mr. Casey said another reason he sent the letter was that "with deficits up and confidence in government down," he wanted to "take whatever measures we can to restore confidence. And I think this program is worth of a real review."
Most importantly, he said, he sent the letter "because of the gravity of the situation at the VA in Pittsburgh."
"You have the tragedy of five deaths and five families that have suffered incalculable loss -- and maybe six [deaths], and we hope to God it doesn't go higher," he said.
During the outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA in 2011 and 2012, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in its investigation that five veterans died after contracting Legionnaires' at the VA and another 18 were sickened.
This week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed that a sixth veteran also may have died after contracting Legionnaires' at the Pittsburgh VA, although his case originally was classified by the CDC as a non-hospital acquired case. Ten other Pittsburgh VA patients who had Legionnaires' in 2011 and 2012 also were classified by the CDC as non-hospital acquired cases.
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579.