A new bill has been proposed in the House which could force Department of Veterans Affairs employees to return bonuses that may have directly contributed to veteran deaths.
Florida Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is proposing new legislation demanding that VA employees and executives return their bonus money for a job not well done.
In July 2014, Miller introduced a similar bill, H.R. 5094, to the House, but it ultimately did not pass the committee stage. And although VA bonus legislation achieved bipartisan support in the Senate, it too, didn’t pass muster. In August, Miller compromised by agreeing to the bonuses as a trade-off for strong reform of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Now, Miller is back with his original legislation.
This time, Miller is tightening up the legislation under the name H.R. 280 to remove any legal ambiguity. If the legislation passes, secretary Robert McDonald will have full authority under the bill to revoke ill-deserved bonuses. However, given Miller’s past history with the bill and a seemingly unchanged Senate, the prospects of the legislation seem dim.
The bonuses Miller has in mind were distributed by the department in 2013, a practice which his committee in July 2014 found may have incentivized employees to cover up data and falsify wait times, according to USA Today. Executives and employees received $380,000 dollars worth of bonuses at 38 hospitals under investigation.
In one case, Elizabeth Freeman, director of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, received a $12,579 bonus.
It was later found that the numbers Freeman reported were wildly inaccurate. Instead of new patients seeing doctors within 18 days, the real numbers suggested wait times were much higher: 63 days. Approximately 70 percent of the hospitals which received rewards manipulated figures. According to Miller, bonuses should be reserved for genuine cases of good performance.
“The VA secretary has the authority to rescind these bonuses anytime within a year of when they were paid, and I am calling on him to take this action where he deems appropriate,” Miller said in July 2014.
The VA Secretary at the time, Eric Shinseki, suspended bonuses for 2014, but didn’t correct for the bonuses handed out in 2013. Last summer, Congress capped bonus money payments at $360 million dollars a year, a figure locked in for the next decade, which amounts to only $40 million dollars less annually.
Congress’ efforts don’t appear to have instigated much in the way of serious reform. At the beginning of 2015, the Philadelphia VA introduced a policy to award employees up to $15,000 dollars for going through and addressing old claims.
“It’s puzzling why the department would create a separate incentive program on top of its existing program for awarding bonuses to employees,” one House aide told TheBlaze. “Is the hundreds of millions in employee bonuses VA awards annually not enough to inspire adequate performance among its ranks?”
“Nevertheless, this incentive plan is a typical approach for VA: award bonuses to people for merely doing their jobs, throw money at problems without addressing their root causes, and focus on arbitrary numbers rather than quality and standards,” he said.
Somehow, despite action taken by Congress making it easier for the VA to fire executives, little attention was paid to the bonus money. If this new bill passes, the VA secretary would have the authority to take back bonus money from undeserving employees and directors—without the possibility of an appeal.
“VA is reviewing the legislation and will provide formal views to the Congress following completion of our standard process,” the VA said in a written statement to Stars and Stripes.
The bill is set to head to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee where congressmen will debate the merits of the legislation.
“Ideally, VA employees and executives who collected bonuses under false pretenses should be subject to prosecution when warranted, but at a minimum their bonuses should be paid back in full. I urge my colleagues to support this bill so the VA secretary will have another tool to instill some much-needed accountability throughout the department,” Miller said in a statement.
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