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VA challenges Congress to restore employee bonuses

VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson attends a House Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 9, 2015. Following a ruling that overturned the firing of a VA executive, Gibson on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, said he would pay the executive her back pay but would not restore her to her former position.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 21, 2016

WASHINGTON — Sloan Gibson, the deputy secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, is urging the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to lift restrictions on employee bonuses instituted by Congress this year to crack down on misconduct.

In a letter sent to the committee Monday, Gibson called the restrictions “counter-productive,” “unwarranted” and a hindrance in hiring and retaining high-quality employees. He also argued the committee singled out VA employees for unequal treatment on numerous occasions this year – something he said should stop as President-elect Donald Trump takes over further transformation of the beleaguered agency.

“[It] defies logic that Congress should so severely limit employee awards and incentives, for VA alone, at such a pivotal time in our transformation,” Gibson wrote.

Because of the new limitations, he said, employees would see a 30 percent cut in performance-based awards this fiscal year. About 20 percent of those employees are new to the agency since the 2014 wait-time scandal, Gibson said. That year, it was revealed veterans suffered through extended wait times for treatment and some managers were manipulating data and downplayed how long patients waited for appointments.

The letter was addressed to retiring Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who is chairman of the House committee and led the congressional effort to limit bonuses to VA employees.

“Clearly, the judgement of VA leaders is clouded by their continual obsession with cash bonuses, awards and incentives for employees even in the face of ongoing scandals plaguing the agency,” Miller said Wednesday in a written statement.

In July, President Barack Obama signed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016, which addresses the nationwide opioid epidemic. Worked into that legislation were limits on how much the VA could spend on bonuses and other awards to employees.

For fiscal 2017, the VA was allotted $230 million for bonuses and other employee incentives. In his letter, Sloan said that was nearly a 20 percent cut from what was awarded in fiscal 2016.

The law states the cuts should “not disproportionately impact lower wage employees.” It goes on to say the VA should award bonuses as an incentive to high-performing employees in areas with retention problems.

The cuts were made to employee bonuses, Miller said, to offset the cost of the VA expanding its opioid safety initiative.

“The bottom line is we felt strongly that facilitating the recovery of veterans suffering from addiction was far more important than bankrolling employee bonuses,” Miller wrote in a response to Gibson.

Miller went on to say he would not support restoring bonuses without a recommendation from the VA about how the agency could pay for opioid safety from within its existing budget.

In addition to the bonus restrictions, Gibson took aim at other proposals from Congress this year that he said targeted VA employees unfairly.

One bill sponsored by Miller this fall would have made it easier for the VA to fire poor-performing employees. Obama issued a statement about the measure, saying it would strip VA employees of their due process rights. The bill passed the House before stalling.

“Changes that target only VA employees within the federal government – that adversely affect VA talented leaders, health-care professionals, and other service providers – ultimately hurt the veterans VA is privileged to serve,” Gibson wrote.

In a public discussion last week, VA Secretary Bob McDonald said he failed to develop an effective working relationship with the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Miller has been one of the VA’s harshest critics and led the congressional response to the 2015 scandal. He reiterated the need to hold accountable the VA and its employees. When the 115th Congress convenes in January, a new chairman, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., will lead the committee.

“Their hearings are on things that happened years ago, and they continue to be on things that might embarrass the VA or the president,” McDonald said last week about the House committee. “So, I haven’t been quite as successful as with the Senate.”

McDonald also said Congress acted as a barrier toward more transformation within the agency.

Just before the 114th Congress concluded this month, it passed veterans reform legislation that included only pieces of a large reform bill that McDonald and veterans advocates had pushed for throughout most of 2016.

In his letter, Gibson asked Miller that as Trump transitions into office and a VA transformation is likely led by a new secretary, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee “stop singling out VA employees for disparate treatment.”

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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