For the first time since the Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs Healthcare System revealed in November 2012 that it had a Legionnaires’ outbreak that later was tied to six deaths, President Barack Obama spoke about the “tragedy” and expressed remorse to the families of the victims during his speech Tuesday at the VFW convention in Downtown.
The outbreak “was a tragedy, and whenever there are missteps, there is no excuse,” Mr. Obama said during his speech to about 5,000 members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and their families. “So our hearts go out to the families of those who lost loved ones.”
Then later Tuesday, during a news conference with reporters, VA Secretary Robert McDonald, who was appointed just a year ago, apologized to veterans and the victims’ families.
“On behalf of VA, I’m deeply sorry for what happened,” said Mr. McDonald, who did not mention the outbreak during his own speech at the convention but made it part of his prepared remarks during the news conference later in the day. “I’m sorry to the veterans who were affected and their families. To the families who lost loved ones and to those who lost confidence in the VA health care system, I apologize.”
That was also the first time Mr. McDonald has spoken publicly about the outbreak.
Mr. Obama and Mr. McDonald tried to make the case in their remarks that the VA had made significant changes to the Pittsburgh VA in response to the outbreak and made the hospital system safer as a result.
While families have long sought the president’s and VA secretary’s acknowledgement of their loss and acceptance of the VA’s role in the outbreak, the comments Tuesday came too late for some family members.
“It’s good to hear,” said Clint Compston, son of the second fatality during the outbreak, Clark Compston, 74, from Aliquippa, who died Nov. 14, 2011. “But [if you’re Mr. Obama] you’re in a roomful of veterans in Pittsburgh, so you know the question is going to be brought up by someone, so you’d better bring it up first so you look good.”
Judy Nicklas, daughter-in-law of the last fatality, William Nicklas, 87, of Hampton, said it is true that the VA eventually fired former Pittsburgh VA director Terry Wolf and disciplined several other employees.
“But first of all, it took them a long time to make some changes, and only because they were pressured,” Mrs. Nicklas said.
What the president said “was just lip service to what they think veterans in Pittsburgh and across the nation wanted to hear, and after we weren’t able to get a response out of the White House all these years.”
Asked at his news conference why the Pittsburgh VA and central VA had spent years trying to blame the outbreak on a water treatment system and failed protocols that needed to be revamped, Mr. McDonald related it to his experience working in corporate America.
“When I got to the VA, I found a culture that was very insular,” said Mr. McDonald, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble. “It’s not unusual that in an organization that gets in crisis that the organization becomes very inward looking, becomes more bureaucratic, does more of the same things it has done in the past. The leadership’s job is to change the culture and to get people to look outside.”
He continued, “In business, if a business is in trouble, what happens to people is they stop visiting the customer, people stop doing training. And this is what I found at the VA.”
Now, he said, “We try to create a culture of: We own the problems, and try to fix them.”
While the families did not feel any solace in the remarks from either the president or the secretary, there was a possibility that a more personal touch might change that.
Neither Mr. McDonald nor his predecessor, Eric Shinseki, has visited with the families to apologize directly and talk with them about the outbreak, despite repeated requests to Mr. Shinseki.
Mr. McDonald, who previously gave out his personal cell phone number to veterans to call him with problems, acknowledged he had not met with the families and said: “But if that is important to those families, they should have my phone number just like everyone else. I’d be happy to meet with them. I’m in Pittsburgh frequently.”
Mr. McDonald’s wife grew up in the area; they got married at the Old Stone Church in Monroeville; and his in-laws still live here, as does an adult daughter.
When told what Mr. McDonald said about contacting him, Mrs. Nicklas said she was going to take him up on the offer.
“You bet I’m going to call him,” she said.