Despite facing increased scrutiny by lawmakers, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued more than $142 million in bonuses to top executives and employees for performance in 2014 while dealing with a string of scandals within the agency. The bonuses continued to be issued even after former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned last year following the scandal revealing falsified wait-times, suspended bonuses for only senior executives within the Veterans Health Administration.
The VA continued to pay bonuses to other workers in other departments, including those facing their own controversies. The VA gave bonuses ranging from $4,000 to $8,000 to executives responsible for overseeing construction of an overdue Denver facility. Managers at a Wisconsin office also got bonuses between $1,000 and $4,000 despite findings the office was over-prescribing opiates. And some employees in the VHA have continued to receive bonuses.
The agency has continued to pay performance-based bonuses to nearly half of agency employees, including in health administration, according to data provided to USA TODAY by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. In all, some 156,000 executives, managers and employees received them for 2014 performance. VA spokesman James Hutton fired back insisting the majority of agency employees are committed to serving veterans.
VA will continue to review tools and options in order to ensure the department is able to attract and retain the best talent to serve our nation’s veterans, while operating as a good steward of taxpayer funds.”
Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller has taken the lead investigating questionable VA bonuses for several years. Miller says the awards show a disturbing trend of awarding employees who allow corruption and incompetence. Miller noted the agency paid more than $380,000 in 2013 performance bonuses to top officials at hospitals where veterans faced long delays in receiving treatment, including those under investigation for wait-time manipulation. “Rewarding failure only breeds more failure,” he said Tuesday. “Until VA leaders learn this important lesson and make a commitment to supporting real accountability at the department, efforts to reform VA are doomed to fail.”
Acting VA Secretary Robert McDonald spoke with Fox News ignoring the controversial bonuses and instead highlighting the improvements made within the agency. He cited wait-times are down to five days for special care; four days for primary care; and three days for mental health care. Further, he said, the disability claims backlog is down 88 percent.
The recipients included:
- Former chief of the VA medical center in Tomah, Wis., Dr. David Houlihan — nicknamed the “Candy Man” by vets for his prescribing of narcotics — who collected $4,000. One veteran died at the center from “mixed-drug toxicity,” USA Today reports.
- VA officials in Washington who oversaw a late and billion-dollar over-budget Denver building project, including Stella Fiotes, executive director of the VA’s Office of Construction and Facilities Management, who got a $8,985 bonus; Dennis Milsten, an associate director in the same office, who got $8,069; and Chris Kyrgos, former national acquisitions director, who took home $3,800.
- Claims processors in a Philadelphia benefits office that investigators dubbed the worst in the country last year received $300 to $900 each.
This is not the first time the VA has been criticized for handing out bonuses. A CBS News report airing in 2014 explains how $2.8 million in bonuses were issued despite revelations that wait times for veteran care were horrendously long. This latest revelation comes following a vote by the U.S. Senate on an amendment that would allow VA Doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their patients in states where it’s legal.