The Veterans Affairs Department paid out more than $177 million in bonuses in fiscal 2015 -- $3.3 million of which went to senior executives, according to a USA Today report.
The average bonus for a VA senior executive in fiscal 2015 was around $10,000, the newspaper reported, about what it was in fiscal 2014. In fiscal 2014, the average individual SES performance award at VA was $9,450, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management. That amount was below the governmentwide average of $10,560 for SES bonuses that year. In fact, for fiscal 2014, VA was among the least generous agencies when it came to individual SES performance awards.
But even within that context, bonus payments can look bad, especially for a department that continues to struggle with mismanagement and high-profile missteps. Dr. Darren Deering, the former chief of staff at the Phoenix VA Medical Center, who was fired in June for failing to provide sufficient oversight during the wait-time scandal, received a $5,000 bonus for fiscal 2015 in February, according to the USA Today report. Jack Hetrick, the former Veterans Integrated Service Network director for Region 10, who retired in February shortly after receiving a notice of proposed removal, received a $12,705 bonus in January. The VA had substantiated misconduct in February by Hetrick related to a subordinate’s improper drug prescriptions for Hetrick’s wife.
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The VA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bonus data.
Most of the fiscal 2015 bonuses went to non-senior executive employees working in the field, the VA told USA Today. Nurses received the largest percentage of the total performance awards, according to the data, with an average individual bonus of $952, the paper reported.
“We cannot speak to the bonuses that executives may have received at the VA as we do not represent those workers,” said J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents a large chunk of the VA workforce. “That said, bonuses for frontline health care providers and other rank-and-file employees are vital for retaining employees who might otherwise leave due to uncompetitive salaries.” Cox added that “neglecting to reward or recognize the modestly-paid workers who do the necessary work of caring for veterans in order to finance big bonuses for top executives is wrong.”
Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, said that bonuses are a part of the VA’s performance system for all employees, and if Congress wants to change that, “they need to come up with another way to reward employees.” He said that linking the payment of bonuses to “unrelated” controversies “is wrong,” pointing out that the “vast majority” of department employees are “high-performing.” He also noted that the VA secretary signs off on senior executive bonuses.
The VA, the second-largest department in the federal government, has a workforce of more than 330,000 employees, and approximately 350 career senior executives. Roughly 189,000 employees received fiscal 2015 bonuses, according to the USA Today report.
In September, Congress passed a short-term fiscal 2017 continuing resolution that also included the Military Construction-VA appropriations legislation. That law contains language that would prevent department supervisors who commit a prohibited personnel action from receiving bonuses for one year, and force affected employees to pay back any bonuses received during that time period.