Congressional Hearing — Investigators: Improve VA bonus process

Associated Press

WASHINGTON —  June 12, 2007, The VA needs to do a better job of handing out department bonuses based on performance after it awarded $3.8 million to senior budget officials who put health care at risk, investigators said Tuesday.

Testifying at a congressional hearing, the Government Accountability Office said the Veterans Affairs Department was taking additional steps to link hefty bonus payments more closely to the department’s overall success in treating veterans.

But 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 a House Veterans Affairs 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.

The subcommittee hearing 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 to senior officials 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, two months short of the VA’s strategic goal of 125 days.

Gordon Mansfield, the VA’s deputy secretary, defended the bonuses as appropriate. He said the hefty payments were necessary to retain hardworking officials who might otherwise leave for the more profitable private sector.

But the bonuses drew fire from lawmakers from both parties, who decried the payments as evidence of improper favoritism. All bonus recommendations must be approved by VA Secretary Jim 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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