Editorial – VA Bonus Procedures Suspect

Denver Post

Some critics of government often suggest that citizens would be better served if bureaucrats operated more like businessmen.

Unfortunately, it appears the Veterans Affairs Department has mimicked one of the business world’s most abused practices – giving top executives giant bonuses even as the company fails.

Senior VA officials, including nearly a dozen responsible for drafting a budget that was $1.3 billion short and jeopardized veterans’ health care, nonetheless received lucrative performance bonuses.

Given the horrific stories that have emerged about the lack of quality care available to soldiers returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s mind-boggling to think anyone could be awarded a performance bonus of any amount. But the VA handed out $3.8 million in bonuses to senior executives – despite the $1 billion shortfall. Even a deputy undersecretary who manages the benefits system racked by severe backlogs of veterans waiting for disability help received a bonus. About half a million people are on a waiting list for benefits.

It gets worse: Nearly two dozen officials who received the performance bonuses last year also sat on the boards charged with recommending the payments, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. The documents raise questions of conflicts of interest or appearances of conflicts since they show that 21 of 32 officials who were members of VA performance review boards received more than half a million dollars in payments themselves, according to AP.

Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., wants to introduce a bill that would freeze bonuses this year for the VA’s top management until the backlog of work has been reduced to fewer than 100,000 cases. He called the bonuses “shocking and scandalous,” considering the backlog of disability cases and average delays of 177 days.

VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, the only Coloradan left in President Bush’s Cabinet, has defended the bonuses, saying they help keep experienced employees from jumping to the more lucrative private sector. He also said he would work hard to improve veterans’ care.

He needs to do even more than that. Nicholson should restrict performance bonuses to those employees who not only show improvement but can demonstrably link their actions to a decrease in the backlog of cases and better care for America’s servicemen and women.

If we’re going to send our sons and daughters off to war, we need to ensure they receive quality care when they return.

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