William Nicklas entered the Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs hospital due to nausea on Nov. 1. He was a former Navy sailor, and he thought that he would receive the best possible care at the VA hospital. William died less than a month later from a Legionnaires’ infection contracted at the hospital—an outbreak that had already claimed four lives.
Two regional VA executives received hefty bonuses in the middle of the outbreak. Earlier this year, one of those executives received the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award for his work, which came with a 35 percent bonus.
The Nicklas family told this story at a House Veterans Affairs hearing Monday morning in Pittsburgh. The committee convened the field hearing to examine management and safety failures in multiple VA facilities, including the Pittsburgh hospital and parallel executive bonuses for those overseeing the failures.
"A rash of preventable veteran deaths, suicides, and infectious disease outbreaks at several [Veterans Health Administration] facilities throughout the country has put the organization under intense scrutiny," said Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, in prepared remarks obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
"Despite the fact that multiple VA Inspector General reports have linked a number of these incidents to widespread mismanagement at VHA facilities, the department has consistently given executives who presided over these events glowing performance reviews and cash bonuses of up to sixty-three thousand dollars," Miller continued.
The Nicklas family testified that maintenance, communication, and management failures led to William contracting Legionnaires’ infection. VA administrators were aware of previous infections, but they did not take the steps to correct the problems, the family said.
Other families and employees also testified about poor experiences with the VA’s health system and management.
Gerald Rakiecki, a VA police officer and a union representative of VA workers, testified that VA officials intimidated some whistleblower employees who called out poor recordkeeping practices.
"Approximately two-hundred and forty (240) boxes containing hundreds of patient records were wet, moldy, stuck together, out of sequence, out of order, inaccessible, and unattainable," Rakiecki said in his prepared comments.
Brandie Petit described to the committee her brother Joseph’s experience trying to get treatment for his knees, which he injured in Army Ranger training. Joseph could not get treatment at the VA medical center because they said the injury occurred before he joined the Army, and he ended up taking more than 20 pills a day, his sister said. The medications caused Joseph to hallucinate, and he ended up committing suicide, she said.
"I am very upset with the way Joseph and so many others are treated. My brother deserved more respect, if nothing else," his sister said, according to her prepared remarks.
The VA apologized for the mistakes but defended its policies.
"When misconduct occurs, employees are held accountable through a range of actions and consequences that appropriately address the circumstances, "said Robert Petzel, VA under secretary for health, in his prepared remarks. "For instance, actions may include counseling and training or severe discipline such as demotion and removal. Acts that are deemed blameworthy have clear consequences and accountability."
Miller was unimpressed with the VA’s explanation.
"What we are questioning is whether VA has the proper organizational culture, accountability, and management structures to minimize the future occurrence of heartbreaking situations," Miller said.
"Considering that the VA executives who presided over the incidents I just described are more likely to have received a bonus or glowing performance review than any sort of punishment, the question we are asking here today is entirely valid," he said.
This scandal is not the only problem facing the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The VA has a well-publicized backlog in veterans’ benefit claims, with nearly half a million claims currently pending for over 125 days.
The veterans advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America has been pressuring the administration to take tangible steps to fix the backlog, including civil service reform to give officials the power to fire underperforming workers.
"By now it’s abundantly clear to most people that a culture change at VA is in order," Miller said on Monday.