The Department of Veterans Affairs paid bonuses to 80 percent of its senior executive service managers in 2013 -- a figure that caused House lawmakers on Friday to express amazement and anger at the VA's head of human resources.
Assistant Secretary for Human Resources Gina Farrisee, appearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee to explain the VA's policy on the bonuses, told lawmakers that the VA was tightening up the metrics and standards on performance reviews to ensure the integrity of the system.
"In 2014, VA added more rigor and discipline to this performance management and appraisal system by requiring and providing direction to the employee and the review panels on the direct linkage to VA's strategic goals and objectives and values," Farrisee told the panel.
She said that as executives are better trained in how to execute performance ratings the system will improve.
Committee members were not mollified by testimony from VA leaders that the department paid nearly $3 million in bonuses to more than 350 executives of the Veterans Health Administration last year.
Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-New Hampshire, likened the VA's acceptance to the percentage of executives receiving bonuses to "grade inflation."
"Coming from the private sector It's hard for me to believe that 80 percent of employees can either be 'outstanding' or this other category that is above and beyond what the expectation is," she said. "And it makes me feel like the expectation is lowered to a place that doesn't serve our veterans."
But the harshest words directed at Farrisee, who commanded the Army's Human Resources Command before retiring as a major general, came from Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, who also raised the current controversy over manipulated wait times at VA hospitals, including at Phoenix VA hospitals where 35 vets died waiting for an appointment.
"That's amazing that you would serve this country in uniform and you would be so tolerant [of] how this department retreats on veterans," Coffman said. "It seems to me the only thing the Department of Veterans Affairs is effective at doing is writing bonus checks to each other, those that are in leadership."
Coffman said Farrisee, who served in the Army for 34 years, "should be outraged" at the way veterans are being treated.
"This is the most mismanaged agency in the federal government, yet it's entrusted with honoring our committeemen to those men and women who made extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of this country," Coffman said. "I've got to tell you I think we were better served as a nation when you were working outside of the veterans' administration, not inside the veterans' administration."
Bonuses for VA senior executives were already a bone of contention among lawmakers because of the lengthy disability claims backlog and instances of preventable patient deaths at VA medical centers.
But the issue grew hotter for the VA after reports in November that the VA Medical Center in Phoenix was keeping a secret list of patients waiting to see a doctor, and that up to 40 of the vets died while on the list.
The VA subsequently confirmed 35 deaths of veterans who were on the list. But even before that confirmation, when VA investigators had found the secret lists were being maintained, it was revealed that senior executives with the hospital had picked up thousands in bonuses.
Then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki quickly moved to reverse those bonuses, and also ordered that no bonuses would go to any senior executive service official in the VHA for the current year.
Currently the VA's inspector General is investigating allegations of manipulated patient wait times at 70 VA hospitals and clinics across the country. It is also passing along information to the Justice Department, which could prosecute VA officials and staff if there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org