Federal employee advocates question legality, say process in place to ensure fairness.
Lawmakers have made no secret about their desire to punish employees at the Veterans Affairs Department.
Both chambers of Congress have passed legislation to ease the firing of VA senior executives and other employees, and to restrict or prohibit performance awards. A bicameral conference committee is currently negotiating an agency overhaul.
A bipartisan pair of lawmakers, however, thought the measures under consideration did not go far enough and have introduced a bill to require VA to reclaim bonuses already paid out. The legislation, introduced by Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., would take back bonuses paid to VA employees involved in manipulating data related to patient wait lists at VA facilities.
The bill would authorize the VA secretary to require employees who received bonuses in 2011 or later to repay the awards if the employees contributed to a “deliberate omission from an electronic wait list the names of veterans waiting for health care.” Bonuses given to supervisors of those employees would also be rescinded if they “reasonably should have known” about the data manipulation. The legislation would task the VA inspector general with identifying these employees.
"I'm pleased this bipartisan legislation will hold responsible any VA employee found to have cooked the books on wait times, and will help us quickly recover bonuses and raises paid to those fraudsters with taxpayer dollars," McCaskill said. "And I'll continue holding the agency accountable and demanding VA leadership comply with all recommendations issued in the inspector general's interim report."
The bill would not be without precedent; former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki rescinded in May an $8,500 performance award given in 2013 to Sharon Helman, who served as director of the Phoenix VA hospital at the epicenter of the recent scandal. VA said the bonus was originally awarded due to “administrative error.”
At the time, the Senior Executives Association questioned “whether it is even legal to rescind a performance award,” and said the move continued a trend of targeting Senior Executive Service employees without proper investigations.
“The performance appraisals of senior executives and recommendations for their performance awards undergo rigorous review and oversight,” SEA said in a statement. “Performance awards are discretionary and Performance Review Boards, as well as agency heads, must sign off before an award is granted. This process ensures that a senior executive has met criteria laid out in annual performance plans that speak to individual as well as organizational performance.”
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and author of several bills to reprimand and punish malfeasant VA employees, said on Monday the VA secretary has the authority to rescind bonuses within a year of when they were paid.
“I am calling on him to take this action where he deems appropriate,” Miller said.
A recent USA Today report found the VA awarded $380,000 in bonuses to “directors and top executives” at 38 hospitals currently under investigation for falsifying records.
Since the VA waitlist scandal surfaced, the House has passed a bill that would remove due process rights for the agency’s senior executives. The Senate passed a bill that would hasten the termination process, but retain an employee’s appeal rights with the Merit Systems Protection Board. The House has cleared several measures to cut back on bonuses for VA employees, but none of them have passed the Senate. These differences will likely be addressed in the conference committee.
Check out a full list of the many ways Congress wants to fix the VA here.