Panel to Probe VA Bonuses in North Carolina

Charlotte Observer

May 10, 2007 – North Carolina VA hospital officials face more congressional scrutiny as part of a national probe into the federal agency’s executive bonuses.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee plans a hearing this month that will, in part, examine $335,000 paid to top N.C. managers during years they oversaw poor care.

“The message that sends out is that there’s no accountability,” said U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, the California Democrat who heads the committee. “What is the relationship between bonuses and reports of poor performance? We want to know why these were given out.”

The hearing’s broader focus will be top-ranked Veterans Affairs officials who collected bonuses shortly after the agency revealed it had seriously undercalculated its budget needs and would run short of money. Filner called for the hearing last week, saying the agency hadn’t taken into account the cost of caring for soldiers returning from current deployments.

“It concerns me that the same officials that miscalculated the needs of our veterans were awarded with significant bonuses,” he said.

N.C. members of the House and Senate last week asked the VA to explain the local bonuses, reported by the Observer. The payments, spanning 2000 to 2006, include rewards for executives at the Salisbury veterans hospital as VA officials investigated suspicious deaths. Regional managers in Durham also received bonuses.

And those regional awards came as the Asheville veterans hospital struggled with care problems and had to suspend its nursing home admissions after a patient died.

Last week also brought the broader look at VA bonuses.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat and chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, asked VA Secretary James Nicholson why officials were rewarded after the budget emergency. Akaka released a list of bonuses totaling $3.8 million, paid last year to 226 people.

“Just one year after VA’s notorious budget shortfall, when VA management was forced to request emergency funds based on a determination that the budget was short billions of dollars, several senior budget staff each received VA’s highest bonus award of $33,000,” Akaka said.

The N.C. bonuses ranged from $4,000 a year per person to more than $29,000.

Filner held a hearing last month after the Observer reported multiple accounts of poor care at the Salisbury VA hospital. He called the facility a “case study” for the need for tougher oversight nationwide.

“Once again, North Carolina is the one where we have the most paperwork — that’s where the documentation is the most clear,” he said of the bonus issues. “We want to … use your stuff to ask about how do you justify such things. I’d like to see the evaluations of the people you’re talking about.”

U.S. Reps. Mel Watt, a Charlotte Democrat, and Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican, have criticized the local bonuses. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a Republican and a Salisbury native, asked the VA for an explanation. Her Republican colleague, North Carolina’s Richard Burr told the Observer that the VA “has some tough questions to answer about the criteria and mechanisms used to award bonuses.”

The VA has said its Asheville and Salisbury hospitals made changes and improved care. They say bonuses are necessary to attract workers and compete with higher private-sector pay.

Filner said he didn’t rule out bonuses for deserving workers, but asked, “Are people being rewarded for the wrong reasons?”

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