WASHINGTON — The House passed a bill late Monday that would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs secretary to recoup bonuses from senior executives implicated in manipulating patient wait-time data last year and other wrongdoing.
The vote rekindles debate on Capitol Hill over accountability in the VA following the worst scandal in its history and moves the focus to the Senate, where a similar bill was introduced last year but failed to pass.
News that the senior federal executives were potentially paid more performance bonuses based on falsified data angered many lawmakers, including Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who sponsored the bill. Last year, federal audits found that at least 70 percent of VA hospitals and clinics across the country doctored appointment records to mask veterans' long waits for health care.
"No business in America would allow employees to not only stay at work but to hold on to bonuses while they cooked the books," said Rep. Dan Benishek, D-Mich., who sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee and voted for the bill.
Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., said about $380,000 in cash bonuses was paid out at 38 of the VA hospitals under investigation for falsifying patient wait times.
Department managers were rewarded if they kept veteran wait times under 14 days. After the scandal broke, a June VA inspector general audit revealed that 57,000 vets had been waiting longer than 90 days for health care.
"It is disgraceful that employees would be benefiting while so many veterans are suffering," Costello said.
However, the bill, which passed by an untallied voice vote, did raise some concerns among supporters.
Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., the new ranking member on the Veterans Affairs Committee, said recouping bonuses retroactively once the bill is passed could trigger a constitutional challenge from senior executive employees in court. Those federal managers are employed under a specific set of rules that guarantee appeals and other rights, and advocates have warned that changes such as dramatically shortening appeal times for firings could be unconstitutional.
The bill would also make the VA the only agency with the power to reclaim bonus money, which creates the potential for abuse by secretaries, Brown said.
"I hope the secretary and those who follow the secretary will use the authority with caution," she said.
The measure's chances in the Senate are still unclear. That chamber is already considering legislation sponsored by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., that would reduce the pensions of executives convicted of felonies related to their work, matching a House proposal.
Last summer, senators Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., introduced a bill to recoup the bonuses and it failed — along with Miller's initial 2014 version of the legislation.