WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs doled out more than $142 million in bonuses to executives and employees for performance in 2014 even as scandals over veterans’ health care and other issues racked the agency.
Among the recipients were claims processors in a Philadelphia benefits office that investigators dubbed the worst in the country last year. They received $300 to $900 each. Managers in Tomah, Wis., got $1,000 to $4,000, even though they oversaw the over-prescription of opiates to veterans – one of whom died.
The VA also rewarded executives who managed construction of a facility in Denver, a disastrous project years overdue and more than $1 billion over budget. They took home $4,000 to $8,000 each. And in St. Cloud, Minn., where an internal investigation report last year outlined mismanagement that led to mass resignations of health care providers, the chief of staff cited by investigators received a performance bonus of almost $4,000.
As one of his final acts last year before resigning, then-VA secretary Eric Shinseki announced he was suspending bonuses in the wake of revelations that VA employees falsified wait lists to meet wait-time targets — ostensibly as part of efforts to secure the extra pay. But he only curtailed them for a sliver of VA executives — those in senior levels of the Veterans Health Administration, which oversees health care.
The agency has continued to pay performance-based bonuses to nearly half of agency employees, including in health administration, according to data provided to USA TODAY by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. In all, some 156,000 executives, managers and employees received them for 2014 performance.
VA spokesman James Hutton said the vast majority of agency employees are committed to serving veterans.
“VA will continue to review tools and options in order to ensure the department is able to attract and retain the best talent to serve our nation’s veterans, while operating as a good steward of taxpayer funds,” Hutton said.
That’s not good enough for Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House VA committee, which has been investigating questionable VA bonuses for years. Miller says the most recent awards reflect a “disturbing trend of rewarding employees who preside over corruption and incompetence.”
He noted the agency paid more than $380,000 in 2013 performance bonuses to top officials at hospitals where veterans faced long delays in receiving treatment, including those under investigation for wait-time manipulation. “Rewarding failure only breeds more failure,” he said Tuesday. “Until VA leaders learn this important lesson and make a commitment to supporting real accountability at the department, efforts to reform VA are doomed to fail.”
Miller spearheaded – and the House passed – a measure last year that would have eliminated bonuses for VA senior executives for five years. But ultimately the House and Senate compromised on legislation that still allows the VA to hand out up to $360 million annually to executives, managers and employees.
Overall, the agency awarded $276 million in incentives in 2014, including retention and relocation payments, rewards for saving money on travel and coming up with inventive ideas, according to committee data.
The cash bonuses of $142.5 million were tied to performance reviews. Employees were eligible to receive the lump-sum payments for ratings of “fully successful” or higher. The payments ranged from $8 to as much as $12,705. Most were more than $500. The average payout was $909.