WASHINGTON — Lawmakers will hold a field hearing in Pittsburgh next week to ask why local Veterans Affairs administrators received hefty bonuses in the wake of the preventable deaths of five patients.
But what they really want to know is whether there is any accountability within the VA bureaucracy.
The rare outside-the-beltway hearing follows a series of reports condemning how the department has handled merit pay and benefit assistance oversight. It also comes after months of pressure from veterans groups and members of Congress for the VA to take tougher action against poorly performing employees.
The criticism that VA employees are rarely held accountable for failings cuts across numerous problems faced by the department in recent years, including the shrinking but still massive disability backlog.
Last week, Republicans on the House Veterans Affairs Committee launched a website to call out midlevel administrators by name for receiving sizable bonuses despite significant questions about their effectiveness.
They include a VA construction chief who received $55,000 in extra pay despite numerous delays and cost overruns with major projects; a disability benefits executive who got $60,000 in bonuses despite the mounting claims backlog; and a St. Louis facility director who received $25,000 in award pay despite “persistent patient-safety issues” including HIV exposure of several patients.
Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the goal is to expose “VA’s long and well-documented history of rewarding failure” and force a culture change within the organization.
“VA executives who fail in their jobs shouldn’t receive bonuses or glowing performance reviews,” he said. “They should be disciplined or fired.”
In a statement, VA officials said that some performance awards – including individuals in the health administration medical networks – have been suspended pending further review.
"All employees are expected to help VA achieve its mission of providing veterans the highest quality care possible,” the statement said. “When an incident occurs, VHA leadership conducts a prompt review to understand what happened, hold those responsible accountable and prevent similar incidents in the future.
“If employee misconduct or failure to meet performance standards is found to have been a factor, VA will take appropriate corrective action immediately.”
Top officials at AMVETS and Concerned Veterans of America this week penned an editorial charging that underperforming VA workers “face no serious consequences” for failure.
“Welcome to the twisted world of federal executive branch employment, where it’s nearly impossible to be fired for poor performance,” the piece said.
Department officials have insisted the vast majority of VA employees are hard-working and dedicated individuals who have veterans’ best interests at heart. Thus far, they haven’t responded to committee requests to justify the bonuses.
In August, the Government Accountability Office portrayed the VA’s merit pay systems as dysfunctional, with no real connection between work accomplished and bonuses awarded. The review results — requested by congressional Democrats — dismayed lawmakers.
“It is clear to me that too often those who do not perform above and beyond are reaping rewards they do not deserve,” said veterans committee ranking member Mike Michaud, D-Maine.
The Pittsburgh hearing follows months of pressure on VA executives for their role in an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at a local veterans health center. Five patients died and up to 20 others were sickened in 2011 and 2012.
Despite that, the regional director and other area executives received glowing work reviews and tens of thousands in bonuses for exemplary job performance. VA has defended those payouts, saying the bonuses were not tied to a single event or benchmark.
J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the bad publicity surrounding VA management mistakes casts all department employees in a bad light, even the rank-and-file workers.
“If you’re a veteran stuck waiting on a claim to be processed, you’re not selective in who you blame, even if it’s really a management problem,” he said.
In May, the House committee passed legislation to ban all VA executive bonuses for five years. The proposal has received support from veterans groups but stalled in the face of VA opposition.
The same month, VA suspended bonuses for all Veterans Benefits Administration senior executives, reinvesting that money into efforts to end the backlog.
Committee members have promised to revive that idea in coming weeks, along with their accountability questions.