VA acknowledges problems with bonuses

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stacks_of_moneyVA acknowledges problems with bonuses
By HOPE YEN

The VA on Tuesday acknowledged problems in its award of $3.8 million in bonuses to senior officials who put health care at risk and said it would consider changes to avoid conflicts of interest and improve oversight.

Testifying before a House panel, Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Gordon Mansfield insisted that the hefty awards were appropriate and necessary to retain hardworking VA employees. But he agreed the process might lack objectivity because members who sit on the VA performance review boards – which are charged with recommending bonuses for top employees – all come from within the agency and typically get bonuses themselves.

"I understand the issue you are raising," said Mansfield, when asked by lawmakers whether VA should add outsiders to its board to reduce peer pressure on VA employees to take care of their own at the expense of taxpayers. "Bringing some outside influence might make the system better."

Mansfield said VA Secretary Jim Nicholson would consider the proposal of adding agency outsiders to the VA's review boards. In its last known report on the issue, the Government Accountability Office in 1980 urged departments to include outsiders to add credibility to bonus awards.     "VA remains committed to the statutory imperative of executive bonuses to both reward and to encourage continued excellence in performance. We've got some damn good people," a grim and subdued Mansfield said.

Mansfield spoke as a handful of members of a veterans advocacy group, Grassroots America, silently held up signs in the hearing room that read, "My 80% disabled son backlogged 1 1/2 years."

The hearing before a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee comes after The Associated Press reported last month that 21 of 32 officials who were members of VA performance review boards charged with recommending bonuses received more than half a million dollars in payments themselves.

Among them: nearly a dozen senior officials who received bonuses ranging up to $33,000. Those officials, however, were involved in crafting a budget that came up $1.3 billion short by repeatedly failing to anticipate needs of growing numbers of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Also rewarded was the deputy undersecretary for benefits, who manages a system with severe backlogs of veterans waiting for disability benefits. The current wait for veterans averages 177 days, nearly two months longer than the VA's strategic goal of 125 days.

Earlier in the hearing, government investigators told House members that the VA needed to do a better job in linking its hefty bonus payments to the department's overall success in treating veterans.

The GAO said confusion still exists within the VA on the proper criteria, and executives based in Washington consistently outpaced their counterparts elsewhere in the size of payments – $19,439 compared with $15,268 to officials outside Washington.

In a report to the subcommittee, the Office of Personnel Management said its review of VA practices found inconsistency in the awarding of bonuses.

"Discussions within the VA performance review boards should center on measurable results achieved and the awards scoring form … should more clearly focus on results," said OPM director Linda Springer.

Mansfield expressed concern that the hardworking VA officials might leave for the more profitable private sector if they did not receive bonuses.

That drew fire from lawmakers from both parties, who decried the payments as evidence of improper favoritism and said it would be illegal to award bonuses on anything other than performance. All bonus recommendations must be approved by Nicholson, who declined to testify before the subcommittee.

"When the backlog of claims has been increasing for the past few years, one would not expect the senior-most officials to receive the maximum bonus," said Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., who chairs the House subcommittee on oversight. "Indeed, it appears the bonuses in the central office were awarded primarily on the basis of seniority and proximity to the secretary."

Florida Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, the top Republican on the panel, said she wanted to make sure the bonuses were awarded based on VA officials' "actual performance, and not just performance on paper."

"The federal government should not be in the practice of awarding bonuses to people who permit failure on their watch," Brown-Waite said. "It should be limited only to the very best, particularly in time of war."


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