WASHINGTON (AP) — About 65 percent of senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department got performance bonuses last year despite widespread treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals and clinics, the agency said Friday.
More than 300 VA executives were paid a total of $2.7 million in bonuses last year, said Gina Farrisee, assistant VA secretary for human resources and administration. That amount is down from about $3.4 million in bonuses paid in 2012, Farrisee said.
The totals do not include tens of millions of dollars in bonuses awarded to doctors, dentists and other medical providers throughout the VA's nearly 900 hospitals and clinics.
Workers at the Phoenix VA Health Care System — where officials have confirmed dozens of patients died while awaiting treatment — received about $3.9 million in bonuses last year, newly released records show. The merit-based bonuses were doled out to about 650 employees, including doctors, nurses, administrators, secretaries and cleaning staff.
There was confusion Friday about the number of senior executives who received bonuses. During a hearing Friday of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, both lawmakers and Farrisee had indicated that nearly 80 percent of senior executives had received bonuses. Later, however, the committee provided documents showing that 304 of 470 senior executives, or 64.7 percent, had received bonuses. The committee and a VA spokesman said the 80 percent figure referred to the number of senior executives who received very high ratings, not those who received bonuses.
Farrisee defended the bonus system, telling the Veterans' Affairs panel that the VA needs to pay bonuses to keep executives who are paid up to $181,000 per year.
"We are competing in tough labor markets for skilled personnel," Farrisee said. "To remain competitive in recruiting and retaining the best personnel to serve our veterans, we must rely on tools such as incentives and awards that recognize superior performance."
Farrisee's testimony drew sharp rebukes by lawmakers from both parties.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman, said the VA's bonus system "is failing veterans."
Instead of being given for outstanding work, the cash awards are "seen as an entitlement and have become irrelevant to quality work product," Miller said.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said awarding bonuses to a high percentage of executives means that the VA was setting the bar for performance so low that "anybody could step over it. If your metrics are low enough that almost everybody exceeds them, then your metrics are not very high."
Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., said the VA suffered from "grade inflation, or what (humorist) Garrison Keillor would refer to as 'all of the children are above average.'"
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