Topics: Veterans Affairs

Millions of tax dollars in 'sordid' bonuses paid to top Veterans Affairs administrators despite phony wait lists, patient deaths

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Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs,Follow the Money,Veterans,Eric Shinseki,Jeff Miller,Government Bonuses

Hefty performance bonuses were paid last year to 64 Department of Veterans Affairs medical directors who oversaw hospitals, including some where patient wait lists were falsified and preventable patient deaths occurred, according to data obtained by the Washington Examiner.

Also collecting a merit bonus of $12,579 last year was John Pierce, the head of the agency's medical inspection unit, who retired this month after being slammed by the independent Office of Special Counsel for downplaying whistleblower complaints about inadequate patient care.

Almost 300 top managers, members of the Senior Executive Service, collected merit bonuses totaling more than $2.7 million last year, according to the database obtained through the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Many of those who received extra cash are medical directors at hospitals that are under investigation by the agency's inspector general over reports of “systemic” falsification of appointment data to hide long backlogs in care.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans’ committee, said the payouts to failing managers is more proof of the agency's broken culture that rewards failure.

“VA’s sordid bonus culture is a symptom of a much bigger organizational problem: The department’s extreme reluctance to hold employees and executives accountable for mismanagement that harms veterans,” Miller said.

“VA executives who presided over negligence and corruption are more likely to have received a bonus or glowing performance review than any sort of punishment.

“Until department leaders take steps to ensure VA employees and executives are adequately punished rather than rewarded for corruption and substandard care, it is simply illogical to think the pattern of preventable deaths and patient safety incidents at VA medical centers across the country will subside,” Miller said.

The performance bonuses for 2013 were paid this past February. The VA secretary has a year to rescind them, something Miller said should be done where appropriate.

Bonuses for 2014 were suspended earlier this year.

Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned May 30, a few days after the VA inspector general issued a report documenting “systemic” falsification of patient waiting lists to hide long backlogs in care.

That investigation, which began in April with allegations of a secret waiting list in Phoenix, has spread to about 80 other facilities nationwide. The FBI is participating in a criminal probe related to the allegations in Phoenix.

Yet, despite the ever-widening scandal, 21 top VA executives collected the maximum merit bonuses of $12,579 in 2013. The rest received payouts of at least $6,396 for outstanding performance.

VA paid a total of almost $278 million in cash and other incentives to all employees. That includes bonuses for performance, as well as other types of rewards such as retention and relocation incentives, according to documents obtained from the House committee.

Pierce is among those who received the top award. He was director of medical inspections at VA until he retired earlier this month.

The OSC, which investigates retaliation against whistleblowers, slammed the Office of the Medical Inspector headed by Pierce in a scathing letter to President Obama June 23.

Carolyn Lerner, OSC's special counsel, warned of a “troubling pattern of responses” from the medical inspector that consistently claimed patient care was not jeopardized even in substantiated instances of substandard care.

Instead, the medical inspector consistently used the term “harmless error” when acknowledging lapses identified by whistleblowers that led to patients being harmed or even dying while being treated by VA.

Pierce is among those who received the top payout of $12,579.

OSC has more than 50 pending cases involving allegations of inadequate care at VA and is reviewing about 60 cases of retaliation against agency whistleblowers.

Miller and others in Congress have been particularly incensed by the performance bonuses paid to top hospital administrators, despite dozens of patient deaths and more recent revelations about bogus waiting lists.

Meeting agency deadlines on wait times was a key factor in determining who got a bonus. VA officials now acknowledge that created a perverse incentive to cook the books to make it appear veterans were waiting days or weeks for medical appointments, when in reality they waited months or years.

Sharon Helman was director of the Phoenix VA until she was removed from that position. Shinseki announced the removal the day he resigned.

Helman received a $9,345 bonus in 2013, which Shinseki said he rescinded because it was authorized due to an administrative error.

Helman does not show up in the new bonus database. However, her boss, regional director Susan Bowers, did receive an $8,985 bonus in 2013.

Other top managers at problem facilities include:

• Jeffery Milligan, medical center director in Dallas, where more than 13,000 medical appointments were mass-purged in 2012 as part of a nationwide effort to reduce reported backlogs.

Milligan also is the former director of the VA medical network based in Harlingen, Texas, where he initiated cost-cutting measures that made it difficult for veterans to qualify for colonoscopies, according to a whistleblower whose allegations were first exposed by the Examiner.

More recent allegations of inadequate patient care at the Dallas hospital have been raised by whistleblowers. Milligan received an $8,300 merit bonus in 2013.

• George Marnell, medical center director in Albuquerque, N.M., where an audit found falsification of wait time data had been going on for a decade. Marnell received an $8,775 bonus last year.

• Sallie Houser-Hanfelder, medical center director in Temple, Texas, where whistleblowers claim they were told as early as 2012 to manipulate patient records to hide long wait times for care. She received an $8,616 bonus last year.

• Michael Winn, medical center director in Little Rock, Ark., who received a bonus of $12,579 last year. A whistleblower complaint to OSC identified poor management and infection controls that put patients' safety at risk.

One veteran died after choking on his own vomit because poor inventory control led to a lack of suctioning equipment needed to clear his airway, according to the OSC complaint.

Medical center directors in six cities where preventable patient deaths have occurred were awarded bonuses last year.

A fact sheet published by VA in April acknowledged 23 patients died from gastrointestinal cancers linked to long delays in receiving colonoscopies or other tests.

The fact sheet did not say when the deaths occurred, so it is uncertain whether individual medical directors were in place at the time.

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