WASHINGTON – A senior U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs official told a bipartisan congressional panel Friday that the VA’s senior executives often conduct their own performance reviews with little or no oversight – a circumstance that likely resulted in a bonus payout totaling $2.8 million in 2012.
The VA’s Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration, Gina Farrisee, told Congress that from FY 2010 to FY 2013, not one of the 470 members of the Senior Executive Service, or SES, whose pay typically ranges between $121,749 and $181,500, received a less than fully satisfactory or successful rating.
As WND reported in late May, The VA’s highly controversial bonus system came under fire by agency critics who say the incentive money motivates some employees, especially managers, to misrepresent achievements in order to meet performance goals.
However, in early June two VA senior executives were among 100 nominated from various government agencies to receive the 2013 Presidential Distinguished and Meritorious Rank awards, which makes them eligible for a bonus equal to 20 percent of their salary if one of them were to win the award.
During Friday’s hearing, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., cited several glaring examples of alleged misconduct on the part of VA senior executives. Miller and other committee members said the VA on Friday finally relinquished long-awaited information regarding the removal of six SES employees.
Gross negligence for financial gain?
As WND has reported, last February, Sharon Helman, the former director of the VA medical center in Phoenix received an $8,500 end-of-year performance bonus. After relentless probing by the Veterans Affairs committee members, the VA said she received the award as a result of a “clerical error.”
The Phoenix location was cited by the first whistleblower as a location where veterans were put on secret wait lists for appointments that were so long multiple eligible care recipients died waiting for appointments.
Miller said in his testimony that the error regarding Helman’s bonus is unlikely because “past documentation from VA has stated that all performance reviews and awards are ultimately reviewed and signed by the secretary.”
The former director of the VA regional office in Waco also received a total of $53,000 in bonuses. Miller said that under the director’s management, the Waco office’s average disability claims processing time “multiplied to inexcusable levels.”
Miller cited another example where in a May 2013 congressional hearing, VA construction chief Glenn Haggstrom struggled to explain why he collected almost $55,000 in performance bonuses “despite overseeing failed construction plans that cost our government nearly $1.5 billion in cost overruns.”
Washington jockeys for solution
The bureaucratic shuffle continues in Washington as lawmakers scramble to find a viable solution to long wait times and lost paperwork.
Acting U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson told members of the media Wednesday that even though he still is not 100 percent confident that all wait times listed on VA computers are accurate, “I have vastly greater confidence” in the list than he did in the past, when manipulation of patient times was widespread across the VA system.
House and Senate Veterans Affairs delegation, led by Miller and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., approved separate resolutions last Wednesday that appointed 28 lawmakers – 14 from each chamber – to serve on a conference committee and work on a compromise so veterans have better access to medical care.
Lucrative contract awards while vets linger
At the same time, the agency allocated millions for computer equipment and management training while veterans fell further into a bureaucratic death list oblivion.
In 2011, 14 defense contractors won a $12 billion VA information technology contract with the goal of reducing the backlog of benefit claims, improving the continuity of care for veterans, ensuring physicians have the most accurate medical history of a patient, and significantly improving patient safety.
And WND uncovered a Defense Department news document that showcases Obama’s plan for a “total transformation” of VA healthcare through his Integrated Electronic Health Record, or IEHR, which “will create a single, jointly created common health record for all DoD and VA medical facilities that, when completed, will be the nation’s single largest health record system.”
There was no mention of the cost to taxpayers for such an endeavor.
“I’m asking the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to work together to define and build a seamless system of integration with a simple goal. When a member of the armed forces separates from the military, he or she will no longer have to walk paperwork from a DoD duty station to a local VA health center; their electronic records will transition along with them and remain with them forever,” he said in 2009.
DoD and VA officials in the document lauded the results of their program, saying that because of their efforts, the DoD and the VA “share digital treatment information on 1.1 million service members and veterans,” including:
- 23 million more laboratory results, for a total of 92.8 million results shared
- 3.6 million more radiology reports, for a total of 15 million shared, and
- 24 million more pharmacy records, for a total of 95.7 million shared.
Information sharing of this magnitude was intended to slash wait times in half and give veterans direct access to their records so they can bring them to a facility of their choice. But that is not what happened. Instead, the Obama administration courted the biggest players in the defense contracting industry, offering them a chance at record-sized contracts, and subsequently profits.
Instead of receiving much-needed medical tests, and direct access to life-saving care – veterans ended up on those much-documented extended wait lists.
Farrisee, who assumed her position of chief human resources czar last September, told the congressional panel Friday that she believes “there is room for change in the VA,” but part of that change “will come with more training of our senior executives and understanding our critical elements that are put in the performance plans in establishing very real goals and the metrics we have talked about.”
Farrisee, a veteran herself, said that performance reviews were conducted entirely on paper until recently and that a senior executive’s performance is measured against the strategic and organizational goals of the VA, though she did not say what those goals are.
Miller fired back and said that he is sure it is not to allow veterans to die while awaiting care and other panel members questioned Farrisee’s sincerity.
But she did not give the committee any specifics about senior executive training except to say that they will be able to see their performance metrics in advance and they will, “do a lot more training with our senior executives on what the critical elements mean.”
Right after Obama began his first term, then-Deputy Secretary Scott Gould testified before the House Veterans Affairs Oversight and Investigations Committee on his strategy to implement a Performance Management Accountability System, or PMAS, “to enhance the competencies of the VA’s Senior Executive Service.”
The result was a multi-million dollar contract awarded in 2010 to a Northern Virginia firm that specializes in teaching program management to mid- to senior-level government employees and executives.
Documents WND uncovered stated that “the VA’s PMAS and Office of Management and Budget’s information technology dashboard provide useful sources of metrics for measuring progress…which meets Kirkpatrick Level 2 evaluation through the self-assessment component of action plans.”
During congressional testimony Farrisee struggled to explain the methodology VA uses for determining the dollar amount of bonuses except to say that it was based on “a percentage…and performance metrics.”