PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — “In Pittsburgh, VA officials knew they had an outbreak of Legionnaires Disease on their hands but they kept it secret for more than a year.”
With those words, U.S. Rep Jeff Miller of Florida, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, opened a hearing in Pittsburgh on the VA’s mishandling of health care issues — not just here, but around the country.
The testimony was often emotional.
“My brother was a prisoner in his own body. He couldn’t even stand up alone,” Brandi Pettit, sister of Joseph Pettit, testified about her brother.
“Why wasn’t something done after the first person died, the second, the third, the fourth?” asked Bob Nicklas, son of William Nicklas. “Why wasn’t testing done sooner on my father when they knew there was a Legionella problem?”
Most congressional hearings are simply dog-and-pony shows, and this one had an element of that, too, with one big difference — for the first time senior VA officials had to listen to the families themselves.
“I’m saddened by these stories of loss,” Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA’s Undersecretary of Health told the congressional panel. “I’m saddened by the incredible journey these people have had to go through.”
While expressing regret, Petzel upheld the quality of VA health care and did not back away from bonuses given to directors.
Chairman Miller: “Has anyone asked that the bonuses awarded here in Pittsburgh to be returned?”
Undersecretary Petzel: “Not that I’m aware of.”
Miller: “Did you?”
Petzel: “I did not.”
Miller: “Why not?”
Petzel: “Because the bonus was awarded for the performance as we knew it then.”
Families were not satisfied.
“How can you defend this? How can you truly defend this?” asked Maureen Ciarolla, daughter of John Ciarolla.
While bonuses might stand, Petzel did say a criminal investigation by the Inspector General.
“We will see accountability when we get the criminal IG’s report and then are allowed to proceed with whatever actions we’re going to take,” said Petzel.
No indication when that Inspector General’s report will be completed.
Local U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle, Tim Murphy and Keith Rothfus fired tough questions at the undersecretary for awarding nearly $80,000 in bonuses to the VA administrator here in Pittsburgh.
But so far, at least, the VA has made no effort to try to reclaim that tax money.
Watch Bob Allen’s report: