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Bills seek VA bonus bans, easier firing policies

Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014 3:48 PM
Last updated Monday, Feb. 17, 2014 2:20 AM
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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.”


• In-state tuition rates at any public college or university in the country for G.I. Bill recipients, not just those in a veteran’s state of residence

• A two-month extension of Veterans Retraining and Assistance Program job training benefits through May 31

• Stronger infectious disease reporting requirements for VA hospitals

• A requirement for VA health officials to obtain the consent of patients before electronically monitoring them in private patient areas

• More comprehensive reporting requirements for VA employees traveling abroad

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Just My Opinion
Just My Opinion 02/15/14 - 05:30 pm
It doesn't take a rocket

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that incentive bonuses for administrators are probably one of the worst ideas to have happened in places like hospitals. Bottom line that will ALWAYS occur in those situations is lower staffing. Lower staffing quickly leads to dissatsfaction amongst employees and patients, leads to mistakes, leads to theft, leads to lawsuits, etc.. While all this is occurring, administrators are sitting back, counting their bonuses, and awaiting the ultimate tipping point when they will finally have to step in and "make things right"! I have NEVER met a hospital administrator who I could trust. They all are like politicians. If their mouths are moving, you can pretty much bet they are lying. But their co-administrators won't talk against them because that would cut off their bonus checks.

Junket103 02/15/14 - 09:35 pm
Bill Doesn't Go Far Enough

The legislation is a start, but if you want to bring change to a government agency like the VA you have to look at all managers, not just the top manager. The amount of control allowed by the facility Director is really quite limited.

If Congress was truly serious about reform, defund the VA as an agency that provides direct health care. Instead use the billions spent to either give veterans a giant bonus for their service or give veterans a health insurance policy with very low or no copays or fees. This way veterans would have a choice of providers, the same as Medicare patients. Veterans could also include their spouse and dependents in their healthcare. This is currently something the VA does not provide, except to a limited group of veterans that meet certain restricted criteria. The new healthcare exchanges could offer a few veteran only plans that would be available to eligible veterans and their family members.

The VA has grown into a bloated bureaucracy that tries to provide a service, healthcare, that would be easier for the private sector to provide. When government tries to function like a business, it has difficulty succeeding unless it has a monopoly. But the service suffers because civil service rules make hiring and disciplinary action nearly impossible.

corgimom 02/15/14 - 10:41 pm
Congress doesn't provide

Congress doesn't provide enough funds for the VA hospitals to provide quality care, and then wants to penalize people for not providing quality care.

Yes, that sounds like the US government, all right.

itsanotherday1 02/15/14 - 11:37 pm
I've sung this song for years

"Instead use the billions spent to either give veterans a giant bonus for their service or give veterans a health insurance policy with very low or no copays or fees."

Let the VA medical services dry up on the vine. To avoid displacing dedicated career rank and file people, phase it out by giving all new military personnel a commitment to free health insurance. As older veterans pass on, the demand will lessen to the point the VA's will consolidate, then close altogether. Give the remaining vets under the VA plan insurance at that point.

KSL 02/16/14 - 05:14 am
Defund the Feds, period. And

Defund the Feds, period. And that is about as stupid as what our dictator said.

JimS 02/16/14 - 08:08 am
Bonuses are given for Great Work

Especially, in this case and government agency the peoples responsibility not maintained, while under decades of being under funded to cover the needs especially during and after our wars!!!!
The burr and miller in the house are lead war, off the books, costs with no bid contracts rubber stampers, with little to nothing for veterans at same time, and one who only attends the Veterans Senate hearings, as minority chair, when he feels like it! Who ideologies created the reasons for Veterans backlogs:
“Why in 2009 were we still using paper?” VA Assistant Secretary Tommy Sowers “When we came in, there was no plan to change that; we’ve been operating on a six month wait for over a decade.” 27 March 2013

More disturbing in relation to even before and through the early years of the Afghanistan, quickly abandoned missions of, and Iraq occupations, this:

ProPublica and The Seattle Times Nov. 9, 2012 - Lost to History: Missing War Records Complicate Benefit Claims by Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans
"DeLara's case is part of a much larger problem that has plagued the U.S. military since the 1990 Gulf War: a failure to create and maintain the types of field records that have documented American conflicts since the Revolutionary War."

Army Says War Records Gap Is Real, Launches Recovery Effort

The War On Military Records
"12/10/2013 - The era of big data has arrived on the battlefield and we need to find new ways to deal with it."

And meanwhile, as those served don't like to Sacrifice themselves, the country ignores and support the ignoring of the results of war on those who served in theater and carry that politically by blaming the Veterans Administration led by the political ideology seeking to privatize for corporate profit, the peoples responsibility:

Army Times Oct. 16, 2008 - VA claims found in piles to be shredded

CNN iReport October 25, 2008 - House Vets' Committee To Probe VA Shredder Scandal

Tampa Bay Times Oct 27, 2008 - Hundreds of VA documents improperly shredded, review finds {Tampa Bay Times search page and series of articles}

CBS News February 11, 2009 - Veterans' Claims Found in Shredder Bins

USN All Shore '67-'71 GMG3 Vietnam In Country '70-'71

seenitB4 02/16/14 - 09:35 am
Cyber Wars

Our new wars will be so different...just millions of dollars wiped from our accounts in a single moment...grids knocked out of service & we just saw the damage that can do..yes--a different world coming up.

pgapeach2 02/16/14 - 09:16 pm
The next step

Should be an investigation to rounding those employees who access patients records without their permission. After they round them up, they need to get anyone involved in trying to help cover it up.

teaparty 02/17/14 - 03:53 pm
"Congress doesn't provide

"Congress doesn't provide enough funds for the VA hospitals to provide quality care, and then wants to penalize people for not providing quality care."
I find it humorous that every time a gov't agency fails the first thing the liberals say 'Congress doesn't provide enough funds'. CA is a great example, they keep throwing good money after bad while going broke.

corgimom 02/17/14 - 06:44 pm
What they really need to do

What they really need to do is make it easier to fire all Federal employees, it's not fair to single out the ones at the VA.

We all have had runins with some Federal employees that should've been fired long, long ago.

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