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Lawmaker Demands Veterans Secretary Support Bonus Recoupment Bill

VA Secretary Robert McDonald
VA Secretary Robert McDonald

A House lawmaker on Tuesday demanded that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs make up his mind about a bill to recoup bonus money from VA officials who collected the cash based on manipulated or skewed data.

Furthermore, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, told VA Counsel Kim McLeod that Secretary Bob McDonald needs to support the bill.

"He came on board to clean up the VA," Coffman told McLeod during a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.  "We have instances where management was complicit in the cover-up of appointment wait times, where managers got bonuses based on false reports of performance ... Veterans suffered for that."

Other officials earned thousands in performance bonuses even though construction projects they were responsible for fell behind schedule and saw significant cost overruns, he said, adding he could not understand how McDonald could not have an opinion about legislation that would permit him to recoup bonus money from these employees.

"This says ... that nothing's really changed," Coffman said. "I want you to take a message back to the Secretary that he needs to make a decision, and the decision should be to support that bill."

Rep.  Jeff  Miller, chairman of the committee, has drafted legislation that would give McDonald the authority to recoup bonuses from those who engaged in illegal actions or mismanagement in the performance of their jobs. 

Currently, the VA believes it may only recoup bonus money that was awarded based on a performance error, McLeod told the panel.

Sharon Helman, the former director of the VA Medical Center in  Phoenix, Arizona, ground zero for the patient wait times scandal that rocked the VA starting in April, had received a bonus of about $9,000 in 2013. Fired by VA in November after some seven months on paid administrative leave, Helman's termination was validated by the Merit Systems Protection Board because she had accepted gifts from a representative of a healthcare company hoping to do business with the Phoenix VA.

According to McLeod, the VA's efforts to recover the bonus money stalled with Helman's appeal of her termination. She also indicated that Helman has continued to appeal her case, saying that once the appeal is finished any recovery of the balance of the bonus will be handled by the U.S. Treasury.

During the Tuesday hearing, VA Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Disability Affairs David McLenachen also laid out the department's take on several other bills being considered by the committee.

VA opposes a 5-year plan bill

These include a bill that would require the VA to provide Congress with a five-year budget plan similar to that which the Defense Department submits, and another that would roll back a VA rule -- established last year -- requiring claims be filed on a standard form.

Susan Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary for policy, told lawmakers the VA supports the intent of the five-year plan bill but believes it's too early to make it a law.

She said VA has been working to set up a multi-year programming capability within its Office of Policy and Planning and toward that end developed a Future Years Veterans Plan for 2015-2019. But VA is still trying to "mature" the process while it develops one for the period 2017-2021, she said.

The same bill would create a new executive position, Chief Strategy Officer, who would oversee the five-year plan. As with the overall legislation, VA supports the concept but thinks it is too soon to put it into law.

Miller asked Sullivan "what is the fear that VA has about putting a five-year plan out to the public?"

"I'm on the Armed Services Committee," he said. "We get a five-year picture [from the Defense Department]. What is your opposition?"

"We're still maturing that process," she said. Sullivan said she did not know how long that would take.

New rule kept in place

A bill that would invalidate the VA's rule change on what constitutes the start of a claim -- or at least the start date of the claim -- was opposed by the VA but backed by several veterans' service organizations attending the hearing. The standard electronic form that VA has made part of the process would take the place of informal communications -- a letter -- that it previously accepted as the start date of a claim.

The standard "Intent to File" form would reserve the date for one year, during which period the veteran could put together his or her formal claim application.

The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Paralyzed Veterans of America all expressed concern the rule would put veterans who do not have ready access to the newly created standard forms at a disadvantage over those that do.

"I assure you this is not a ploy by the VA in any way" to keep veterans from filing claims, McLenachen told the lawmakers. He said the VA is moving to a paperless system and that the standardized form was developed as an incentive for veterans to use electronic claims.

But then the VSOs raised the issue that paper claims would be treated differently than electronic claims, he said, which he admitted VA had not accounted for initially.

As a result, he said, the final rule actually in place allows veterans to get their start date either through filing the standard form, by calling up the VA, or going to a VA office in person, where the form would be filled out for them.

As with an informal letter, the Intent to File form "preserves the effective date" from which their compensation will commence, if it is approved, he said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com

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