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 in the future like 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' outbreak here.
Families of the victims of the outbreak, leaders of a union representing VA employees, and politicians alike 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 today 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 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."
In addition, he asks that the White House 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.
The White House did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Mr. Casey's letter.
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's review of Mr. Moreland's award, but has heard nothing so far.
In addition, he said, "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.
But earlier this week, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story revealed that a sixth veteran may also have died after contracting Legionnaires' at the Pittsburgh VA, though his case was originally classified by the CDC as a non-hospital acquired case. Ten other Pittsburgh VA patients who had Legionnaires' in 2011 and 2012 were also classified by the CDC as non-hospital acquired cases.
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579.