WASHINGTON — The House on Monday approved a bill allowing the Veterans Affairs secretary to force senior executives to repay bonuses if the employees engaged in misconduct.
The bill, approved on a voice vote, is one of several measures proposed by GOP lawmakers to crack down on misconduct and poor performance at the VA following a nationwide scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking medical care and falsified records covering up the delays.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida said the bill would bring "much-needed accountability" to an agency that paid performance bonuses to nearly two-thirds of senior executives in 2013, despite widespread treatment delays and preventable deaths at some VA hospitals and clinics.
"As we learned last Congress, behind nearly every VA scandal, there's a bonus," Miller said.
Congress approved a sweeping law last year to overhaul the VA, following reports that dozens of veterans died while waiting for appointments at a VA hospital in Phoenix, and that appointment records were manipulated to hide the delays. A series of government reports said workers throughout the country falsified wait lists while supervisors looked the other way, resulting in chronic delays for veterans seeking care and bonuses for managers who falsely appeared to meet on-time goals.
The new law makes it easier for veterans to get VA-paid private health care and sharply curtails appeals time for VA employees fired because of alleged wrongdoing.
Even with the new law, more needs to be done to ensure accountability at the VA, Miller and other lawmakers said. Besides the bonus recovery bill, Miller also has proposed a bill allowing a maximum of 30 percent of VA's senior executives to receive top performance ratings and qualify for bonuses.
The VA paid more than $380,000 in cash bonuses in 2013 to top executives at 38 hospitals that are under investigation for falsifying wait times or where there have been excessive delays in patient care, Miller said.
Some high-profile VA executives who were later fired or forced to resign also received bonuses, including Sharon Helman, the former head of the troubled Phoenix hospital at the center of the wait-time scandal.
Last May, as details of problems at the Phoenix VA began to emerge, then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki rescinded a $9,345 bonus Helman received in 2013. The bonus was in addition to her $169,000 annual salary. A VA spokesman said at the time that Helman's bonus had been awarded by mistake.
Helman, who was later fired, has appealed Shinseki's action, one of his last as VA chief. A decision on the appeal is pending.
Helman's case shows that Congress needs to give the VA secretary explicit authority to recoup bonuses based on false claims or exaggerated performance, Miller said.
"Ideally, VA employees and executives who collected bonuses under false pretenses should be subject to prosecution when warranted, but at a minimum their bonuses should be paid back in full," he said.
Jenny Mattingley, legislative director for the Senior Executives Association, a trade group that represents career executives throughout the government, said the bill as drafted was overly broad.
"There's a lot of talk about accountability and rightly so," she said, "but we want to make sure there is a direct nexus between withdrawing a bonus and what an employee has done."
As written, the VA secretary would have broad authority to withdraw bonuses without proof of wrongdoing, Mattingley said, adding that top VA officials could use the threat of rescinding bonuses to target individual employees who have fallen out of favor or submitted a whistleblower complaint.
The bill now goes to the Senate.
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