Key Lawmaker Wants to Ban VA Bonuses for Five Years

By Bob Brewin

May 8, 2013

This story was last updated at 5:34 p.m. to include a comment from VA.

The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee proposed legislation that would ban all bonuses for senior executives in the Veterans Affairs Department for the next five years. The move by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., is in response to VA’s disability claims backlog and patient deaths in VA hospitals.

“The fact that so many VA executives collected huge performance bonuses year after year while continually failing at their jobs calls into question whether department leaders even know the meaning of the word ‘accountability,’ ” Miller said. Nextgov has learned that from 2007 through 2011, VA paid 398 bonuses to members of the Senior Executive Service totaling $16.8 million.

Last month, the department said senior executives in the Veterans Benefits Administration will not receive 2012 performance bonuses . The funds will instead be used to accelerate plans aimed at eliminating the claims backlog.

That decision was insufficient, Miller said: “While recent VA decisions to forego certain executive bonuses and review others are steps in the right direction, they don’t go nearly far enough. VA owes every American an explanation for why it rewarded failing executives with bonuses, and we are calling on the department to conduct a top-to-bottom review of its performance appraisal system to prevent similar outrageous payments in the future.”

Miller has proposed an amendment to the 2013 GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act to ban executive bonuses for five years.

“Until we have complete confidence that VA is holding executives accountable rather than rewarding them for their mistakes, no one should get a performance bonus. Period. That’s why I’m introducing this legislation,” he said.

Bonuses paid to senior VA executives declined each year from 2007 through 2011, Nextgov learned. In 2007, the department paid $3.8 million in bonuses; the outlay for bonuses dropped to $2.8 million in 2011.

Miller said he acted after media reports documented “how numerous VA senior executives have received sizeable performance bonuses despite presiding over significant increases in benefits claim backlogs and even patient deaths.”

TribLive in Pittsburgh reported on April 24 that the director of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and the regional director who oversees her each received five-figure performance bonuses for fiscal 2011 while a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires' disease spread through the Oakland and O'Hara hospitals.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported on April 29 that the former top administrator at the Atlanta VA Medical Center received $65,000 in performance bonuses over a four-year span as internal audits revealed lengthy wait times for mental health care and mismanagement that led to three deaths.

The Austin-American-Statesman detailed on April 30 that the former director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Waco regional office received more than $53,000 in performance bonuses between 2007 and 2011 even though the wait time for disbabilty claims in central Texas averaged 440 days, about 150 days longer than the national average.

On Monday, VA reported that it had 880,264 backlogged disabilty claims. Of those, 600,711 -- 68 percent, had been under review for at least 125 days. Those figures were slightly improved from what VA reported on April 29, when 882,023 claims were backlogged, 69 percent of which had been in the system for 125 days.

VA spokesman Josh Taylor said VA executives are committed to delivering quality care and benefits. In addition to cancelling VBA bonuses, the department has also deferred some bonuses to executives in the Veterans Health Administration, he said today. He defended the bonus program as necessary for attracting talented executives to the department.

At a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s panel on oversight and investigations yesterday, lawmakers grilled the VA executive in charge of the department’s construction program, who had received bonuses totaling $54,792 from 2009 through 2011, despite cost-overruns and delays.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said VA’s four largest medical center construction projects had an average cost increase of $366 million dollars and an average delay of thirty-five months.

During the hearing, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., asked Glenn Haggstrom, VA's principal executive director in the office of acquisition, logistics and construction, whether based on this record, he believed he deserved the annual bonuses he received of $20,470, $18,022 and $16,300 in 2009 through 2011.

Haggstrom answered the bonuses were determined by his supervisors and senior VA leadership. When Huelskamp pressed him on the matter, he said they were based “on my performance plan [and] how I did my job.” He said he learned of the bonuses when they appeared in his paycheck.

By Bob Brewin

May 8, 2013