Senior executives in the Department of Veterans Affairs, including the director of Augusta’s VA medical center, could face a five-year ban on performance bonuses and be fired or demoted more easily for failing to deliver quality care under two pieces of legislation being proposed in Congress.
Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican who heads the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, introduced the VA Management Accountability Act last week in an effort to remove red tape involved in firings and demotions by granting complete authority over the disciplinary process to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
On Feb. 3, the House unanimously passed the G.I. Bill Tuition Fairness Act, which includes a provision banning performance bonuses for VA senior executives, including Augusta VA Director Robert Hamilton, through fiscal year 2018.
Both pieces of legislation cap nearly a year of frustration on Miller’s committee. Since March, the board has identified at least 31 preventable deaths at VA medical centers nationwide, including those of three cancer patients in Augusta who died while receiving gastrointestinal treatment.
“VA’s widespread and systemic lack of accountability is exacerbating all of its most pressing problems,” Miller said. “While the vast majority of VA’s more than 300,000 employees and executives are dedicated and hard-working, the department’s well-documented reluctance to ensure its leaders are held accountable for mistakes is tarnishing the reputation of the organization and may actually be encouraging more veteran suffering instead of preventing it.”
Under Title 5 of the U.S. Code, performance awards are lump-sum payments granted to senior executives to “encourage excellence.” They cannot be less than 5 percent or more than 20 percent of an employee’s basic pay, or issued to an employee whose job rating was not determined to be “fully successful” by a review board.
According to VA Accountability Watch, a section on the House committee’s Web site, those standards are not always followed. The site shows more than a dozen instances of senior executives receiving a bonus or positive performance review despite mismanagement or negligence in their facilities.
The incidents include two examples from the VA’s Southeast network.
In Columbia, regional office Director Carl Hawkins received almost $80,000 in bonuses from 2007 to 2011 despite a backlog of disability compensation claims doubling and almost 500 related documents being inappropriately shredded.
At the Atlanta VA Medical Center, former Director James Clark received $65,000 in bonuses from 2008 to 2011 despite four preventable patient deaths, three of which the VA’s inspector general linked to widespread mismanagement.
Pete Scovill, a spokesman for the Augusta VA, said Hamilton has not received a bonus since his arrival in July 2012. It is unclear whether his predecessor, Rebecca Wiley, received a bonus during her time at the Augusta VA, which saw delays in diagnostic, screening and surveillance endoscopies grow to 5,100 consultations.
In September, the House VA panel requested any records reflecting performance reviews, pay bonuses and disciplinary actions issued since 2002. The board said last week that it has yet to receive any of those files.
Scovill deferred comment on both pieces of legislation to the VA’s regional and central offices in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., neither of which returned comment.
The wide reach of questionable bonuses, which stretched as far north as Buffalo, N.Y., and as far west as Phoenix, has brought broad support for a five-year ban.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he strongly supports vigorous oversight of all VA programs and policies, including those identified in Miller’s management accountability act, which has yet to go before the House for a vote.
“We know there are serious problems within the Veterans Affairs system, not just in Georgia, but around the country,” said Isakson, a member of the Senate’s VA committee. “Given this reality combined with our country’s fiscal issues, bonuses for VA employees must be both merit-based and defensible.”
Miller wrote to President Obama in May asking for his personal involvement in addressing VA management and accountability issues.
Months later, he received a response from Shinseki that didn’t mention any specific actions the department has taken to hold its executives accountable for mismanagement.
Current law allows senior executives, which includes 448 personnel in the VA system, to be disciplined and fired, but the process can drag on.
Miller’s legislation would strip top administration of a variety of notification and appeal rights that currently apply across the government. Instead, they would be subject to the same rules that apply to congressional staffers, who are considered at-will employees and can be fired without traditional merit-system protections.
At least four veterans advocacy groups have pledged support for the bill, including the American Legion, Concerned Veterans for America, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“Under the current, antiquated and morbidly dysfunctional civil service system, it’s nearly impossible to dismiss or do more than slap the wrists of incompetent, ineffective and wasteful senior executive employees,” said John H. Mitchell Jr., the national commander of AMVETS.
Miller said House passage of the bonus-ban provision is a big step forward and one he hopes will continue for all who are fighting to instill “some much-needed accountability at VA.”
“We’ve been asking VA for months to conduct a top-to-bottom review of its performance appraisal system,” he said. “So far, VA leaders have refused, and until we have complete confidence that VA is holding executives accountable – rather than rewarding them – for mistakes, no one should get a performance bonus.”