All Veterans Affairs senior executives have received a performance rating of “successful” or better for four years running, despite scandals over benefits backlogs, medical appointment scheduling and rising suicide numbers.
Lawmakers on Friday called that news appalling and indicative of a department whose culture is thoroughly corrupted, without clear focus or real methods for accountability.
“It appears as if VA’s performance review system is failing veterans,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Instead of using bonuses as an award for outstanding work on behalf of our veterans, cash awards are seen as an entitlement and have become irrelevant to quality work product.”
The department has come under fire for bonuses in recent months, with members of Congress questioning why numerous high-level VA officials at poorly performing facilities were awarded bonuses ranging into tens of thousands of dollars.
The latest bonus controversy surfaced in recent weeks, with news of an $8,500 performance award in February to Phoenix VA Medical Center Director Sharon Helman. Last month, she was put on administrative leave pending a review of her role in fraudulent medical appointment wait time problems there.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson earlier this month announced a freeze on all senior executive bonuses for VA health officials, until department leaders can ensure they are being properly awarded.
VA Assistant Secretary for Human Resources Gina Farrisee testified at the hearing that the performance awards are needed to help the department attract and retain top talent, but did acknowledge that more scrutiny is needed in how bonuses are awarded.
In fiscal 2013, one in five VA senior executives was given an evaluation of “outstanding” in their annual review, the highest possible rating. Roughly the same number received a rating of only “successful.” None received a rating lower than that, which would have made them ineligible for bonuses and prompted possible negative employment actions.
Those ratings drew laughs from lawmakers, who asked how every VA executive could be exceeding expectations.
VA bonus payouts have dropped steadily in recent years, from about $4.7 million in fiscal 2010 to less than $3 million for fiscal 2013.
Farrisee said officials are re-examining how the bonus system works and whether clearer performance metrics need to be adopted. Miller said that work is sorely needed.
“Bonuses are not an entitlement,” he said. “They are a reward for exceptional work. VA’s current practice only breeds a sense of entitlement and a lack of accountability.”
Several lawmakers asked if the department intends to punitively recoup bonuses given to employees later found of wrongdoing, or provide other disincentives to discourage workers from gaming VA metrics to obtain extra pay.
Farrisee said any retroactive moves would require a change in law, one that would likely apply not just to VA but also every other government agency.
Both the House and Senate in recent weeks have supported legislation making it easier for the VA secretary to fire underperforming senior executives, in an effort to get around time-consuming federal labor restrictions.