The Department of Veterans Affairs’ ongoing review of performance bonuses has already yielded the cancellation of 43 of the 78 previously extended to senior executives. Only two of the remaining 35 have been approved for continuation, with the rest pending a final decision, according to the VA.
The agency began reviewing bonus awards last year, VA spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said.
The awards have come under increased scrutiny by Congress since testimony in April that some executives may have been “gaming the system” to make it appear more veterans seeking mental health counseling were getting appointments within a required time.
Hitting the right numbers translated into executive bonuses, said a former senior VA official with the agency’s New Hampshire system.
Last week Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., submitted a bill that would bar all bonuses to senior executive services employees at the VA.
“I want to ensure the best care for our veterans, but the VA continues to have an unmanageable backlog, extremely long wait lists, and a poor record on oversight. Given this troubling record, the VA should discontinue paying bonuses to its top executives,” he said when his bill was adopted as an amendment to the VA’s 2013 budget.
Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told Military.com that VA funding “should first and foremost be allocated to caring for veterans.”
“Any monies spent by VA on bonuses need to take into account both today’s economic and fiscal climate, as well as the extraordinary performance that must be documented for award of money in excess of a base salary.”
Given economic tough times, Miller said the committee would continue looking at ways to limit bonuses awarded to VA employees.
The VA awarded more than $400 million in bonuses in 2011, according to an agency breakdown obtained by Military.com. About $3.4 million went to 231 senior executive service employees, a category that includes medical center directors. Compensation for SES employees begins at about $120,000, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
The VA’s bonus awards breakdown obtained by Military.com does not indicate how evenly or unevenly the bonuses were divided among the employees.
Schuda said the agency could not identify individuals who earned bonuses in the now-discontinued awards, including any who may have benefited from the alleged fudging of numbers on veteran mental health appointments.
“If any … were given to people who were found to have reported false numbers about appointment wait times, we could not reveal that because those actions would be subjects of investigation and possible discipline,” Schuda said in an email to Miltary.com.
She said she does not yet know the reasons behind officials’ decisions to discontinue or continue any of the bonuses.
Regarding performance awards, Schuda said that a significant portion went to employees at levels GS-12 and below. Forty-one percent went to workers between GS-5 and GS-7s, whose annual pay ranges from about $27,000 to a high of $44,000. The amount depends on their salary “step” within each grade.
About 13 percent of performance bonuses went to the top-level GS employees, GS-13 to -15, who earn from $72,000 a year to about $130,000, again depending on their years of service.
The Office of Personnel Management and OMB last year issued a government-wide policy capping earned performance awards for GS employees at 1 percent of aggregate salaries, Schuda said.
According to OPM, the salaries themselves, for GS and SES employees, also have been frozen at 2010 levels.
In addition to performance bonuses, the VA is also reviewing its bonuses to recruit, retain and relocate employees for difficult-to-fill positions, she said.
Retention bonuses came to about $105 million in 2011. Recruiting and relocation bonuses added another $29 million and $10 million, respectively, to the total.
“In the past year, oversight of retention and incentive awards was tightened,” Schuda said.
All retention incentives must be reviewed twice a year, and those that do not meet required criteria are ended. The VA also now requires annual re-certification of retention incentives and terminates any whose re-certification is not completed.
Currently, Schuda said, VA is limiting facility directors to 15 percent of salary approval on all retention, relocation, and recruitment incentives. Any more than 15 percent will require the approval of the regional authority – the Veterans Integrated Service Network – or VA headquarters.
VA doctor and dentist pay is based on three factors, she said: base pay, the area market and performance. The average salary currently is about $204,500 for doctors and $181,700 for dentists.
The VA considers its bonuses and incentives critical to its operations, according to Schuda.
“VA does not want its employees to have fewer opportunities than other government employees – this would not serve veterans well,” she said in her email. “We want our fair share of the best and brightest to serve veterans and we have to compete in tough labor markets for skilled personnel.”