Congress losing patience, works to eliminate bonuses for top VA execs

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki


By STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 10, 2014

Congress appears poised to tighten oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs in light of the ever-present backlog of claims and recent, high-profile medical errors, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.

A bipartisanship group of top members of the congressional committees that oversee the VA are frustrated with the agency in the wake of incidents ranging from a patient’s death after an altercation with a nursing assistant in Louisiana to a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Pennsylvania. Lawmakers say these episodes reflect a lack of accountability at the 1,700 VA hospitals, clinics and other facilities.

Congress now appears likely to impose restrictions: The House last week unanimously passed a bill that included a five-year ban on bonuses for senior VA executives, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would save $18 million. The Senate has not voted on the measure, yet.

According to GovExec.com, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the bill’s passage is an important step forward to hold VA more accountable, as the department has failed to conduct the review of its performance appraisal system that the committee recommended. The chairman long has argued that no one at the department deserves bonuses while the backlog of benefits claims remains high.

The Senior Executives Association, a tax-exempt, nonprofit corporation representing the interests of career federal executives, warned Miller not to eliminate the performance awards, as it would drive VA employees out of federal service, according to GovExec.com.

SEA said in a letter to the committee that the bonuses are part of the pay structure for SES employees, and are awarded only after a “rigorous review of executives’ achievements against both individual and organizational performance goals.”The VA cares for 8.75 million patients, from nonagenarian World War II veterans to teenagers with brain injuries from Afghanistan. Vietnam-era vets are now heavy VA users.

In some ways, the VA is politically inviolate, wrote the Wall Street Journal. The report noted that since Fiscal 2000, its budget has tripled to $148 billion, with no serious talk of cuts despite general concern about government deficits. But that windfall and the influx of wounded vets have also drawn increased congressional scrutiny.

The dispute has taken a testy turn in recent weeks, with Miller and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki swapping comments about VA accountability practices, according to the Journal. In a Jan. 31 letter to Miller, the secretary defended the agency’s bonus and dismissal practices, even going so far as to explain bonuses given to particular employees. “Results, or lack thereof, for which employees and executives are responsible and accountable, are factors when evaluating performance,” wrote Shinseki, a former Army general.

Miller shot back Friday: “It’s becoming more apparent by the day that there seems to be just two types of people who think VA is properly holding its leaders accountable: VA executives who have received huge performance bonuses year after year despite failing in their jobs, and those who work in VA’s central office.”

VA officials say the agency has spent less on bonuses than allowed by law.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who chairs the Senate VA oversight committee and is one of the agency’s biggest allies on Capitol Hill, says most veterans are satisfied with VA care. “If you do an investigation of any given [civilian] hospital on any given day you’re going to see negative things coming out,” The Wall Street Journal reported Sanders as saying.

However, he expressed some concern about the VA’s response when things go wrong. “When people are doing a bad job we don’t want them staying in the job; when they do a good job we want to see them rewarded,” Sanders said. “I’m not going to tell you that’s always the case with the VA.”