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VA Bill Would Reduce Pensions of Convicted Executives, Limit Bonuses

House Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller
House Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller

A House lawmaker is doubling down on efforts to hold senior Veterans Affairs Department executives accountable for corruption, mismanagement or poor performance with a bill targeting their pensions and bonuses.

The bill filed Thursday by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, also would limit the time executives could be placed on paid administrative leave and require they change jobs every five years.

The bill is a response to what Miller and others see as the insufficient use of a law passed last year that was supposed to make it easier for VA Secretary Bob McDonald to fire executives, especially those linked to hospitals where patient data was manipulated and some veterans died awaiting care.

"More than nine months after the VA scandal, Americans are asking 'where is the accountability?' " Miller said on Thursday. "Unfortunately, VA doesn't have a good answer to this question. That's why our focus remains on giving the VA secretary more tools to ensure corrupt and incompetent executives face serious consequences for mismanagement and malfeasance that harms veterans."

To date, few have been fired since revelations of secret patient wait lists and manipulated data being systemic problems across the VA healthcare system. The problem was revealed first by whistleblowers at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

Sharon Helman, director of the center, was put on paid administrative leave from April until November, when she finally was fired for having accepted gifts from the representative of a contractor wanting to do business with the Phoenix system.

Miller's bill would enable the VA secretary to reduce the retirement pension of any senior executive service employee convicted of a crime linked to their VA work. It would be decreased by stripping from it retirement credits earned during the years the executive carried out the violations.

The bill also would limit to just two weeks paid administrative leave time that an executive could be given unless the VA secretary can "show good cause for an extension." This provision is intended to avoid a repeat of the Helman episode, in which she was paid for seven months before being terminated.

Miller's bill also would restrict top performance ratings and bonuses to only 30 percent of the VA's senior executives and require all senior executives change jobs within the VA at least once every five years

VA bonuses have been a sore point among lawmakers and veterans groups since investigations and testimony revealed executives across the U.S. picked up thousands in performance bonuses even though their facilities were not meeting VA standards.

Often, too, executives swapped tips on how best to game the system to improve performance ratings, and thereby pick up the bonuses.

Still, the accountability bill Congress passed last year left the bonus system intact.

Miller said forcing executives to change jobs every five years would increase transparency in terms of job performance.

"Right now, the task at hand for VA leaders is replacing the department's culture of complacency with a climate of accountability, and we are going to give them everything they need to do get the job done," Miller said.   -- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com.