Bill caps Veterans Affairs bonuses

The House has approved a bill that would limit the amount of money the Veterans Affairs Department can pay in performance awards to senior employees during the next four years.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., caps the amount of performance awards to senior staff to $2 million per year from 2012 to 2016. VA paid out about $3.3 million in performance awards payments in 2010, according to a fact sheet posted on GOP.gov.

"At a time when the entire legislative branch is reducing spending, and many executive branch employees will not see pay increases, the committee believes it is appropriate that VA reevaluate its entire bonus program and exercise restraint in its awarding of bonuses," GOP.gov said in a summary of the bill.

The 2011 Veterans Benefits Act also directs VA to establish a pilot program at five regional offices to test how well benefits claims processing personnel do their jobs and submit an annual report to Congress. Employees and managers who do not perform up to par would receive remediation or more training. The bill allows the department to take personnel actions against employees who fail the skills assessment twice.

The four-year pilot program, which would cost $5 million from fiscal 2012 to fiscal 2016, would test employees every two years.

Currently, the Veterans Benefits Administration requires 85 hours of annual mandatory training for all employees, including claims processing personnel. The agency also assesses their performance through appraisal ratings and standards. "If an employee fails to meet performance standards, remedial training courses are given, along with biweekly mentoring by the supervisor," VBA said in a statement. "If, after at least 90 days, the employee's performance is still unacceptable, the employee is reassigned, reduced to a lower grade or removed."

The bill, which the House passed Tuesday, extends VA's authority through 2013 to access tax information to verify the income of those receiving vets' pension benefits. The department saved about $4 million in 2010 in pension overpayments through the verification process. The legislation in addition excludes insurance settlements made to a vet, surviving spouse or child from being counted as income in determining disability pension awards. Currently, payments for casualty losses are excluded from such determinations, but awards for pain and suffering are included as income in pension calculations.

In addition, the bill reinstates penalties for soliciting a fee or compensation in assisting a veteran in filing an application for benefits.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated H.R. 2349 would decrease direct spending by $11 million from 2012 to 2016, and by $16 million by 2021.

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