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Watchdog: Accountability

All top Veterans Affairs managers got high performance ratings despite long delays, patient deaths

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Congress,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs,Health Care,Accountability,Veterans,Eric Shinseki,Jeff Miller,Government Bonuses

Every top manager of the Department of Veterans Affairs received a positive performance evaluation for the past four years, and 78 percent got a bonus in 2013, despite a string of patient deaths and falsification of records related to patient wait times, according to congressional testimony Friday.

Agency executives write their own performance evaluations, which seem to receive only cursory reviews from their supervisors, several committee members said in questioning the VA’s top personnel officer.

While everyone was deemed at least “fully successful” in meeting their performance goals, 57 percent of top managers were rated to have exceeded expectations and another 21 percent were found to be “outstanding,” according to testimony from Gina Farrisee, assistant secretary for human resources and administration at VA.

Those who exceeded their baseline requirements got bonuses. The figures include administrators in the Senior Executive Service and certain medical personnel.

Past evaluations cannot be rescinded, even in light of new revelations that hospital administrators nationwide engaged in “systemic” falsification of patient wait lists to hide backlogs in medical care, Farrisee said.

Meeting agency deadlines for delivering care weighs heavily in the performance goals that lead to bonus awards.

In Phoenix and other cities, the agency's inspector general and independent Government Accountability Office have found widespread practices, such as secret waiting lists, were used to falsely make it appear patients were seen within the VA's 14-day appointment deadline.

Outraged members of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs called VA’s bonus-driven culture “reprehensible,” “outlandish,” “scandalous” and “criminal.”

“It seems to be the only thing the Department of Veterans Affairs is effective at doing is writing bonus checks to each other,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. “I just think that is stunning.”

Coffman criticized Farrisee, a retired Army general, for accepting VA's failures and trying to explain them away with bureaucratic answers.

“That’s amazing that you would serve this country in uniform and yet you would be so tolerant as to how this department treats our veterans,” said Coffman, himself an Army and Marine Corps veteran.

“You ought to be outraged at the manner these veterans are treated. But you’re not. It is all status quo to you,” Coffman said.

The Washington Examiner has reported for more than a year that top administrators have routinely collected five-figure performance bonuses, despite overseeing long backlogs in processing disability claims and inadequate care at medical facilities.

Top executives at VA were paid more than $14.5 million in performance bonuses since 2010, according to Farrisee, including about $2.7 million in fiscal year 2013. She did not supply a breakdown of payments to individuals.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson suspended all 2014 performance bonuses for the Veterans Health Administration, which oversees medical care, after the latest scandal erupted about falsified patient waiting lists in April.

Patients at the Phoenix VA hospital were kept on a secret waiting list until an appointment within the 14-day window set by VA policy was available, and only then added to the official list.

Since that practice was revealed by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans committee, in an April 9 hearing, the inspector general's investigation has spread to more than 70 facilities nationwide.

Last year, bonuses for the Veterans Benefits Administration, which processes disability claims, were suspended.

Farrisee, who has been in her job since September, laid out what she described as a rigorous review process in evaluating the performance of senior executives, saying it exceeds the requirements of the government-wide standards set by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Farrisee said the bonus structure at VA is necessary to recruit and retain top people but acknowledged there was no mass exodus from the VBA after bonuses there were suspended.

When committee members pressed her for details on how employee performance is evaluated, Farrisee often said she did not know the answer.

Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., said it appeared from the forms used for performance reviews that the employee does a self-evaluation, which is accepted with little or no scrutiny from supervisors.

Farrisee said the self-evaluation is optional, but she but acknowledged it is required when she was corrected by Miller.

Several committee members honed in on the $63,000 bonus paid last year to Michael Moreland, who was the regional director of the hospital network that includes Pittsburgh.

A half-dozen patients died at the Pittsburgh hospital from Legionnaires' disease linked to mismanagement and faulty maintenance at the facility in 2011 and 2012.

Hospital director Terry Gerigk Wolf also received a perfect performance evaluation for 2012.

Farrisee said once an employee's evaluation is finalized, it cannot be changed, even if new information surfaces of improper or unethical practices.

Moreland retired in 2013, and Wolf was put on paid administrative leave earlier this month while an internal investigation of the Pittsburgh deaths is conducted.

Last month, former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki began the procedure to revoke a $9,345 bonus paid to Sharon Helman, the director of the Phoenix VA hospital.

That bonus was issued due to an “administrative error,” so it can be retracted, Farrisee said.

Shinseki announced May 30 he had begun the process of firing Helman. Shinseki resigned later that day. Helman remains on the VA's payroll on paid administrative leave.

Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H., said it is clear that the standards for outstanding performance at VA are too low. Kuster asked what it takes to get fired at VA.

“Would criminal conduct be evidence of lack of performance?” Kuster asked.

“It would be misconduct,” Farrisee said.

“Would misconduct be sufficient for someone to lose their position?” Kuster continued.

“If the evidence proves that through investigation, yes, that is possible,” Farrisee replied.

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., also challenged whether any meaningful evaluation is given prior to bonuses being awarded.

One of the core values at VA is supposed to be integrity, said Ruiz, an emergency room physician. That is clearly lacking, he said.

“I am appalled by the thought of VA officials covering up the fact that they are not providing much needed medical care to our veterans and still obtaining bonuses,” Ruiz said.

“Honesty and integrity are the values of this country. Lying to get a bonus flies in the face of our values as Americans.”

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