VA leaders grilled over patient deaths, mismanagement in Pittsburgh

VA undersecretary vague on details over accountability for Atlanta VA deaths

PITTSBURGH — Channel 2 Action News has learned new details about disciplinary action taken against staffers at a local veterans hospital after federal reports linked mismanagement to patient deaths.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Aaron Diamant traveled to Pittsburgh, where House Veterans Affairs Committee members laid into Department of Veterans Affairs leaders on preventable deaths at medical centers across the country.

The main concern in Atlanta is still accountability.

VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel faced a congressional firing squad at a field hearing on preventable patient deaths sparked, in part, by a Channel 2 Action News investigation.

"It's just unbelievable," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R- House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman.

Miller was visibly unimpressed as Petzel broke down disciplinary action taken against only a handful of Atlanta VA Medical Center staff following federal reports that blamed mismanagement for mental health patient deaths.

"Can you tell us what happened to the former medical center director?" Miller asked Petzel.

"He retired," Petzel answered.

"Is that a disciplinary action?" Miller asked.

"No, it's not, but it does obviate the possibility of us doing any disciplinary action," Petzel responded.

"It does?" Miller asked.

"Yes," Miller answered.

That was the same story Petzel had for two other top Atlanta hospital leaders.

"The chief of mental health service, before we could do anything, resigned. The chief of staff has resigned from that facility," Petzel said.

But late Monday afternoon, sources confirmed Chief of Staff Dr. David Bowers is still on staff. We're still waiting for the VA to clear all that up.

Earlier, Petzel wasn't happy when Diamant pressed him about the chairman's concerns over allowing leaders to simply resign.

"Resignations mean that we are not able to take disciplinary actions, so the fact that somebody resigns is de facto disciplinary action, because we're no longer able to get at them," Petzel told Diamant.

"So what do we do? So no one's held accountable?" Diamant asked Petzel.

"We're done. We're done with this," Petzel answered.

"The VA has a long way to go to resolve the faith and trust issues that people have with them, especially in places like Atlanta," Miller said during Monday's hearing.

As for that discrepancy in Dr. Petzel's testimony, late Monday afternoon, Diamant got an email from a VA spokesperson saying, "It appears there's been some confusion. Not sure what specific reference you're citing; however, we believe Dr. Petzel was commenting on a different facility, not Atlanta."