By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON – How could nearly 65% of VA senior executives have received performance awards in fiscal year 2013, while the healthcare system was engaging in widespread misconduct related to waiting lists for treatment?
That is what lawmakers demanded to know at a hearing last month of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on performance awards to VA senior executives.
Calling it an “outlandish bonus culture at VA” House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) said that “instead of using bonuses as an award for outstanding work on behalf of our veterans, cash awards are seen as an entitlement and have become irrelevant to quality work product.”
“According to VA‘s own data, over $2.8 million was paid out in performance awards to senior executives for FY 13,” he said. These performance awards went to at least 65% of the senior executive workforce at the Department.”
Miller further pointed out that, in fact, not “not a single senior manager at VA, out of 470 individuals, received a less than fully successful performance review for the last fiscal year.”
An interim VA IG report on its investigation of the Phoenix VAMC noted that “a direct consequence of not appropriately placing veterans on the Electronic Wait List is that the Phoenix HCS leadership significantly understated the time new patients waited for their primary care appointment in their FY 2013 performance appraisal accomplishments, which is one of the factors considered for awards and salary increases.”
Shortly before his resignation last month, former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki put a freeze on all performance awards for senior VHA executives. The VA also announced the removal of a 14-day scheduling goal from employee performance contracts to “eliminate incentives to engage in inappropriate scheduling practices or behaviors.”
VA Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration Gina Farrisee told lawmakers that the implementation of the senior executive service (SES) performance process has become more rigorous in recent years and that those employees receiving the highest rating – “outstanding” — has decreased from 35% in FY 2010 to 21% in FY 2013.”
She also defended the use of tools such as incentives and awards to recognize superior performance but acknowledged that the agency had to do a better of job of holding its leaders and employees accountable for poor performance.
“Our senior leadership must become more engaged at managing executive performance plans to include counseling, midyear assessments and documentation. We realize that improvement in SES performance management also serves as a model for the general schedule workforce performance appraisal process,” Farrisee told lawmakers.
“VA requires talented senior executives to manage the complex set of facilities and programs” and they are competing in tough labor markets for skilled personnel,” she added, noting, “Performance awards are not bonuses; they are awards to promote excellence, and are given to the senior executives who perform the best.”
Farrisee also testified that “failure to recognize value and performance puts VA at risk of accelerating the retirement, resignation and transfer to other agencies or the private sector of some of the department’s most effective senior talent.”
Still, lawmakers wondered whether the metrics to determine performance were rigorous enough if nearly 80% of senior executives were considered to be exceeding expectations in FY 2013.
Rep. David Roe (R-TN) questioned whether the metrics used to determine ratings are so low that “anybody could step over it. If your metrics are low enough that almost everybody exceeds them, then your metrics are not very high.”
Miller asked if all senior managers at VA would have received such good performance reviews if what is known now about access troubles facing VA had come to light before the reviews were issued. Farrisee acknowledged that they would not have but emphasized that the agency cannot rescind the ratings under current law.
“You cannot go back and change a rating once it has been issued to an employee as the final rating,” she said, and noted that this was the case even if information was hidden from the evaluators.