Nearly 65% of VA Execs Got Bonuses Despite Long Waits for Veteran Care

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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.”

Gina Farrisee’s June 20th testimony: http://veterans.house.gov/witness-testimony/hon-gina-farrisee

Gina Farrisee’s June 20th testimony: http://veterans.house.gov/witness-testimony/hon-gina-farrisee

“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.

Comments (4)

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  1. VA Doctor says:

    While performence measure for physcians at the VA are so difficult to meet that we hardly get bonuses. We have been complaining about the 14 days access goal as unrealistic goal, managment would not listen to us( the providers). We are having lot of primary care physicians leave the VA because they feel over worked and under appreciated. We all know the access issues generated from now having enough primary care physicians.

  2. Rajeev Menon Sachdeva says:

    Seniority and executive human status (symbolizing “Lux et Veritas” in any organizational milieu, including the private sector along with government) should be implicit with an ablated “reward seeking” mentality i.e. this select population of leaders must be able to refuse inducements (of cash or in kind) in order to assure personal credibility and sustainability of the organizational culture being propagated. In a ministering professional service such as health care delivery, empathy must first well from the heart and altruism will thence spawn caring and correspondingly natural (not “doctored”) outcomes – in health care, there should be no place for a reward based culture which remains essential for the successful conduct of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Medicine!

  3. D. David says:

    Senior execs who received performance bonuses and either directed or were complicit with the manipulation of wait lists are no less guilty than their civilian counterparts who have been found guilty of Medicare fraud.

  4. M S Lewis says:

    How long is the “media” and Congress going to beat this dead horse?? Congress rarely remembers or learns from their own behaviors, such as granting themselves 25% raises during this state of the economy. It is time to recognize some of the positive changes being made in the VA system, offer suggestions for process improvement and move on! Currently, there is so much more in the “system” to focus on, like going broke if life time benefits and fringe benefits continue to be paid at the astounding rate for most veterans who have similar hereditary medical and other conditions as the general population, such as migraines, fibromyalgia, flat feet, sleep apnea, etc.

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