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Topics: Veterans Affairs

Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki defends bonuses despite patient deaths and disability claims backlogs

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Big bonuses paid to top officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs are justified despite rising numbers of patient deaths and a stubborn backlog of disability claims, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a letter released Friday.

Shinseki said VA officials continue to investigate the performance of employees in charge of medical facilities where preventable patient deaths occurred, including one who got a $63,000 bonus and another with a perfect performance evaluation.

“There is a direct correlation between organizational performance and performance ratings at VA,” Shinseki said in his letter to Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. “Results, or lack thereof, for which employees and executives are responsible and accountable, are factors when evaluating performance.”

Miller characterized Shinseki’s response as out of touch with the reality of the agency’s failings.

“I am extremely disappointed with Secretary Shinseki’s attempt to downplay VA’s widespread and systemic lack of accountability,” Miller said. “It’s becoming more apparent by the day that there seems to be just two types of people who think VA is properly holding its leaders accountable: VA executives who have received huge performance bonuses year after year despite failing in their jobs and those who work in VA’s central office.”

Shinseki is under growing pressure from Congress, the media and veterans groups to explain why top executives collected bonuses worth tens of thousands of dollars even though they ran hospitals where patients needlessly died, or benefits offices with huge backlogs of disability claims.

Shinseki statements came in a Jan. 31 response to a letter Miller sent in August seeking information on several top executives who were either rewarded or not disciplined despite failing to deliver services to veterans.

Among them:

-- Diana Rubens, deputy under secretary for field operations at the Veterans Benefits Administration. Rubens, who oversees the regional offices that process benefits claims, has collected almost $59,000 in merit bonuses since 2009. Currently, more than 403,000 veterans have been waiting for a decision on their disability claims longer than 125 days, the point at which the agency considers them backlogged. That is about 59 percent of all pending claims. In October 2009, there were 158,290 backlogged claims, less than 36 percent of the total.

-- Michael Moreland, former regional director of the area that includes VA hospitals in Pittsburgh. At least five patients died there in 2011 and 2012 from Legionnaires Disease linked to poor sanitary conditions. Moreland received a Presidential Rank Award bonus of almost $63,000 last year. He retired in November 2013.

– Terry Wolf, director of the VA medical center in Pittsburgh, who received a perfect evaluation in her annual review that covered the time period in which most of the Legionnaires contamination occurred. The evaluation made no mention of the outbreak.

— Leslie Wiggins, director of the VA Medical Center in Atlanta, who said in a July press conference she did not believe anyone should be fired in response to four patient deaths linked to improper care at the hospital.

VA officials have acknowledged at least 21 preventable deaths at its facilities in Atlanta; Augusta, Ga.; Columbia, S.C.; Memphis and Pittsburgh.

Shinseki praised Rubens for oversight of 56 regional offices that processed more than 1 million disability claims in 2011, when she received a $23,091 bonus.

The 2012 performance evaluations of both Moreland and Wolf are under review, according to Shinseki. He provided no details about when the reviews will be done, whether their evaluations might be changed or whether Moreland might have to repay his bonus.

As for Wiggins’ statement, Shinseki said some employees at the Atlanta facility have been disciplined and the deaths are still being investigated. Two VA employees received written reprimands, and a third was issued a written admonishment, according to VA documents.

VA officials would not agree to an interview, but did release a written statement echoing Shinseki’s letter.

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