WASHINGTON —Despite the controversies still swirling around the Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 189,000 employees received more than $177 million in bonuses for fiscal 2015, according to data obtained by USA TODAY.
More than 300 senior executives of the troubled agency received $3.3 million in bonuses, for an average payment of about $10,000 each. The non-executives received about $900 on average.
Among those receiving bonuses was the former top VA official in Ohio who retired the same day he received a notice he was going to be fired. Another was the former chief of staff at the Phoenix VA Medical Center who received a bonus four months before he was fired.
More than half the agency’s employees received a bonus, again raising concerns about the performance review process used to evaluate workers. Plus, the number of employees receiving bonuses jumped by more than 20 percent from 2014 and the total amount paid out increased by 24 percent.
“Whether it’s shuffling problem employees from one location to another instead of disciplining them or repeatedly paying out bonuses with reckless abandon, VA’s habit of coddling those who can’t or won’t do their jobs is as well documented as it is disgraceful,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
He said the fact that the bonuses have continued throughout a period of major scandals, including one involving veterans facing long waits to receive treatment, shows that the agency “cannot be trusted to fix this problem on its own.”
"VA is in the midst of a massive transformation effort to improve Veterans’ experiences with VA care and services," said agency spokesman Randal Noller. "Performance management systems and performance-related awards afford leaders an effective means of recognizing superior employees, rewarding strong customer service, and building an exceptionally effective and successful workforce. Employee rewards and recognition not only build employee engagement and morale, but also motivate stronger performance and better service for veterans".
Among those receiving bonuses were:
• Dr. Darren Deering, who was fired as chief of staff of the Phoenix VA Health Care System in June 2016 for what the VA said was "negligent performance of duties and failure to provide effective oversight." Deering was paid a $5,000 bonus in February 2016.
• Jack Hetrick, formerly the top Veterans Affairs official in Ohio, who retired after receiving a notice of pending removal in February 2016. He had received a $12,705 bonus on Jan. 10. An investigation by a Cincinnati TV station gathered evidence that Barbara Temeck, acting chief of staff at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center, was prescribing medication to Hetrick’s wife without a proper license. Also, employees claimed to the TV station that cost-cutting measures hurt quality of care. Hetrick was suspended during the probe of oversight of the Cincinnati VA. The VA said its review did not substantiate impropriety related to quality of care. It did find misconduct in Temeck providing prescriptions and other medical care to members of Hetrick’s family. Temeck was paid a $5,000 bonus in January 2016
• Stella S. Fiotes has been executive director of VA’s Office of Construction and Facilities Management since January 2013. She is responsible for planning, design and construction of major construction projects – those more than $10 million. This includes the replacement VA facility in Denver that was hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. In September, a bipartisan group of lawmakers asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Fiotes and other VA executives lied to conceal the massive cost overruns. She received a bonus of $9,120 in January 2016. She received a bonus of $8,985 in January 2015.
Miller called on the Senate to pass legislation approved by the House in September which would ban bonuses for VA executives for five years and would give the VA secretary the authority to recoup bonuses already rewarded. A similar Senate bill has been introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Caps on the total amount the VA could give out for bonuses over the next eight years were inserted into unrelated legislation signed into law this summer. The law states that limits should not disproportionately effect lower-wage employees.
Data compiled by the Government Accountability Office shows that 99.7 percent of non-executive VA employees received a rating of at least “fully successful” in the evaluations or their work in 2013.
The five-level scale includes: “Unacceptable,” “Minimally Successfully, “Fully Successful,” , “Exceeds Fully Successful” and “Outstanding.”
About 70 percent of VA employees were rated outstanding or excellent.
Also in 2013, all 470 senior executives at the VA were scored as fully successful or higher, according to testimony at a 2014 House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. Seventy-eight percent were in the top two categories. In fact, going back four years, no executive had been scored in the lower two categories.
At that hearing, Miller described referred to an “outlandish bonus culture” at the VA.
“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,” Miller said then.
J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the non-executive VA employees, said “bonuses for frontline health care providers and other rank-and-file employees are vital for retaining employees who might otherwise leave due to uncompetitive salaries."
He said the VA has been “disproportionately reducing bonuses paid out to low-wage workers” — in defiance of lawmakers’ wishes.
“Neglecting to reward or recognize the modestly paid workers who do the necessary work of caring for veterans in order to finance big bonuses for top executives is wrong. Every worker deserves recognition for a job well done, not just the highest paid bosses," Cox said.
VA spokesman Noller said the "preponderance of awards are given to front-line workers at facilities across the country, in every congressional district, who have the closest interactions with veterans."
He said nearly 97 percent of all A performance awards go to employees working in the field. Nurses, with an average award of $952, received the largest percentage of the total awards,