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House Passes Bill Capping Fiscal 2016 VA Senior Executive Bonuses

Companion legislation approved by Senate does not include language limiting VA performance awards for top career leaders.

This story has been updated.

The House on Monday unanimously passed legislation capping fiscal 2016 bonuses for Veterans Affairs senior executives at $2 million.

The measure amends the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act to specifically limit the total amount of performance awards and bonuses given to top career executives at the department in fiscal 2016. The language in the Choice Act required the department to cap the aggregate amount of award and bonuses doled out to all VA employees at $360 million in each of the fiscal years 2015 through 2024. The VA had nearly 360,000 employees as of June 2015, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management’s Fedscope; of that total, 335 were listed as career senior executives.

The provision was inserted into H.R. 1338, which requires the department to study the burial of veterans’ unclaimed remains in national cemeteries run by the National Cemetery Administration.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., praised lawmakers for “reining in VA’s outrageous, everyone-gets-a bonus culture,” calling on the Senate to follow suit.

The Senate companion bill to H.R. 1338 was folded into a larger measure aimed at improving VA’s disability compensation claims backlog, which the Senate passed last week. Neither one of those bills contained a provision that would cap senior executive bonuses in fiscal 2016, as H.R. 1338 does. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., unsuccessfully offered an amendment earlier this month to the fiscal 2016 Military Construction-VA spending bill that would have prohibited senior executives at the Veterans Benefits Administration from receiving bonuses.

A Nov. 11 USA Today report found that the VA paid out more than $142 million in performance-based bonuses in 2014 to senior executives and other employees despite the department’s wide-ranging management problems.

“Among the recipients were claims processors in a Philadelphia benefits office that investigators dubbed the worst in the country last year,” the report said. “They received $300 to $900 each. Managers in Tomah, Wis., got $1,000 to $4,000, even though they oversaw the over-prescription of opiates to veterans – one of whom died.”

The newspaper’s editorial board on Monday criticized the department for rewarding employees involved in mismanagement with bonuses.

“Misbegotten bonuses are not the VA’s most vital concern, but they're a troubling sign of ongoing dysfunction,” the piece stated. “If the agency can’t even stop handing out rewards to employees implicated in scandals, prospects seem poor that it can fix its far more complex problems.”

VA has argued that performance awards and bonuses are an important way the department recruits and retains a talented workforce. "We are making every effort to recruit more quality people to help us care for those who 'have borne the battle,' particularly health care professionals," wrote VA Secretary Bob McDonald, in a separate op-ed published in USA Today on Monday. "We need every tool to compete and attract exceptional people to serve veterans as well as they served our nation."

McDonald pushed back on the criticism over the newspaper's report on performance awards, saying that "severely curtailing" such incentives only at the VA would be a "mistake." He also noted that the bonuses mentioned in the story were "more than a year old" and adhered to Office of Personnel Management standards.

"They are based on performance during that period, not on events occurring after it. The majority who received awards were rank-and-file workers," he said.

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