By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — A House committee has voted to ban VA senior executives from receiving any bonuses for five years, citing claims backlogs and unresolved healthcare quality issues.
House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) introduced the provision as an amendment to the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2013. According to a written statement, the amendment “comes in response to a rash of recent media reports documenting how numerous VA senior executives have received sizeable performance bonuses, despite presiding over significant increases in benefits claim backlogs and even patient deaths.”
One of those controversies concerns the Atlanta VAMC, where a former top administrator received a bonus despite lapses in the facility’s mental-health programs, which led to multiple deaths.
“The fact that so many VA executives collected huge performance bonuses year after year while continually failing at their jobs calls into question whether department leaders even know the meaning of the word ‘accountability,’” Miller said in the statement. “Unfortunately, it’s taken the national crisis that is the benefits backlog and a media firestorm surrounding the department’s bonus scandal for VA leaders to realize that rewarding failure only breeds more failure.”
The provision was approved by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. In order to become law the bill would need approval by the full House and the Senate.
The introduction of the bill comes after VA announcement thatno senior executives in the Veterans Benefits Administration will receive performance awards for fiscal year 2012.
“Performance awards take into account both individual and overall organizational performance goals,” a VA statement explained. “Based on organizational performance goals, all senior executives in the Veterans Benefits Administration will not receive performance awards for fiscal year 2012. Instead, the funds will be reinvested to accelerate elimination of the backlog.
In addition, according to the VA statement, FY 2012 performance awards for some other VA senior executives, including some in the Veterans Health Administration, “have been deferred pending further review and are not being paid at this time.”
The agency explained that, in FY 2009 and 2010, it made “significant program management improvements to ensure the VA executive performance program is consistent with law and regulation.” According to VA, the amount paid for executive performance awards decreased from $3.3 million in 2009 to $2.3 million in FY 2012.
“The highest executive performance award in 2009 was 17.5% of salary; for FY 2012, VA’s highest performance award was 9% of salary. VA spent less than the statutory limit on performance awards for career [senior executives] since 2008,” the statement said.
Despite the VA announcement, bonuses continue to be an ongoing controversy. Last month, American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. was critical of reports that VISN 4 Director Michael Moreland received a five-figure Presidential Rank award despite a deadly Legionnaires’ outbreak at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and “other whistleblower retaliation concerns in his region.”
“We’ve seen this time and time again at the VA; frontline employees are forced to do more with less, while agency executives are pulling in bonuses despite mismanagement, retaliation and intimidation of employees under their watch,” he said in a written statement.
Also questioning VA bonuses was Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS). Huelskamp asked Glenn Haggstrom, who serves as principal executive director in VA’s office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction, whether he thought he deserved annual bonuses in light of a GAO report highlighting construction delays and cost overruns of VA medical facilities.
“According to the records I have in 2009, you received a $20,470 bonus. In 2010, you received an $18,022 bonus, and in 2011 you received a $16,300 bonus. All on top of your base pay,” Huelskamp said at a recent hearing. “Given this GAO report and what we’ve heard here, do you really think you deserved those bonuses?”
Haggstrom replied that the bonuses were not of his “own doing.”
“Congressman, those bonuses were not determined by myself,” he said. “Those bonuses were determined by my supervisors and the senior leadership at VA and, with all due respect, I’d ask you to take that up with them.”
Meanwhile, in addition to announcing that nosenior executives in the Veterans Benefits Administration will receive performance awards for fiscal year 2012, the VA also announced that it is mandating overtime for claims processors in its 56 regional benefits offices in order to accelerate the elimination of the backlog.
According to a VA news release, the mandatory overtime will be implemented through the end of fiscal year 2013 and the additional overtime hours will be used to help eliminate the backlog “with continued emphasis on high-priority claims for homeless veterans and those claiming financial hardship, the terminally ill, former prisoners of war, Medal of Honor recipients, and veterans filing fully-developed claims.”
“VA is dedicated to providing veterans with the care and benefits they have earned and deserve,” said VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki in a written statement. “This increased overtime initiative will provide more veterans with decisions on their claims and will help us achieve our goal of eliminating the claims backlog.”
A facility-specific survey found that 138 of 140 VA facilities reported shortages of medical officers, with psychiatry and primary care positions being the most frequently listed.
When Terrence O’Neil, MD, retired as chief of nephrology at the James H. Quillen VAMC in Johnson City in December 2016, he left in his wake decades of work treating kidney disease—nearly 35 years in the Air Force and DoD, plus 11 more at VA.