WASHINGTON - The Department of Veterans Affairs is withholding bonuses for senior officials who oversee disability claims, citing a failure to meet performance goals for reducing a sizable backlog in claims processing.
The backlog has increased dramatically over the past three years, and the department has come under intense criticism from veterans groups and members of Congress who have asked President Barack Obama to try to speed the process.
VA spokesman Josh Taylor said Monday the savings would be used to help reduce the backlog. He didn't provide specifics, nor could he say how many people would be affected or how much the savings would be. The withholdings apply only to executives of the Veterans Benefits Administration, which is part of the VA.
"We remain confident that VBA senior executives are dedicated to our nation's veterans, and they will continue to lead our drive toward VA's goal: eliminating the claims backlog in 2015," Taylor said.
In all, records show the VA paid its senior executives a total of $2.8 million in bonuses in fiscal year 2011. Among the VBA bonuses, three staff members received the top payment of $23,091 each.
The amount of the bonuses was first reported by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
The number of disability claims pending for longer than 125 days jumped from less than 200,000 to nearly 500,000 in fiscal 2011.
"How does the department expect to turn things around when it is rewarding employees and managers for falling behind?" said Rep. Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
The VA and other federal departments routinely give bonuses to Senior Executive Service workers and other non-political employees. The Office of Personnel Management put new limits into place in June 2011. The VA's total spending for executives bonuses reflected those restrictions and dropped about 25 percent that year.
Miller said he was pleased the bonuses were halted.
"One can only wonder what effect this sort of policy may have had if VA had instituted it years ago," he said.
Political appointees such as Allison Hickey, who oversees the Veterans Benefits Administration, are not offered the bonuses.