- The Washington Times
Wednesday, November 11, 2015

President Obama said Wednesday that he is “still not satisfied” with the scandal-ridden Department of Veterans Affairs, but the agency’s managers were satisfied enough to pay out more than $142 million in bonuses to employees for good performance last year.

Speaking at a Veterans Day observance at Arlington National Cemetery, Mr. Obama said the VA has improved its services for veterans but needs to do more.


“The unacceptable problems that we’ve seen, like long wait times and some veterans not getting the timely care that they need, is a challenge for all of us, if we are to match our words with deeds,” Mr. Obama. “I am still not satisfied, and [VA Secretary] Bob McDonald is still not satisfied.”

But Mr. McDonald’s agency awarded millions in taxpayer-funded bonuses last year to more than 156,000 employees. Among the recipients of bonuses were VA executives who oversaw construction of a VA hospital in Denver that’s more than $1 billion over budget — they received $4,000 to $8,000 each.

Claims processors at the Philadelphia VA office, which was identified by a government watchdog as the worst in the country, received bonuses of $300 to $900 each.

Managers in the Tomah, Wisconsin, VA facility — dubbed “Candyland” for its over-prescribing of opiates to vets — were awarded $1,000 to $4,000 each.

The Tomah facility had been scandal-plagued in 2014, having been the subject of an investigation by the VA’s inspector general for a doctor — Dr. David Houlihan — overprescribing opiates and another investigation when a patient was found to have died from a fatal mix of medications, which included opiates. Dr. Houlihan, who has since been fired, received a $4,000 bonus at the end of the year.

Many of the bonus recipients were under investigation at some point in the year or two prior to receiving the end-of-year payment.

Jed Fillingim of Atlanta, Georgia, received a $900 bonus based on his performance. Earlier in the year, he had admitted to drinking and driving a government truck from which a co-worker fell out to his death. Mr. Fillingim resigned after the incident and then returned to the agency, according to an NBC report.

Former St. Paul, Minnesota, regional office director Kimberly Graves, who recently was subpoenaed by the House Veterans Affairs Committee for allegedly manipulating another VA employee to switch posts so she could move into the position, received $8,697 last year. Ms. Graves invoked her Fifth Amendment rights at the HVAC hearing last week.

Danny Pummill, the acting undersecretary for benefits, received the second highest bonus of the year, $12,579. He was also subpoenaed by the committee to testify about Ms. Graves and Diana Rubens, another VA employee accused of abusing authority to orchestrate a position transfer.

According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, Ms. Rubens had received $23,091 in 2011 for reducing the disability claim backlog. She did not receive a bonus in 2014.

The total cash bonuses — $142,519,333 — were awarded to employees who had good performance reviews. The dollar amounts paid to the 156,777 employees who received bonuses in 2014 ranged from as little as $8 (an audiologist in Phoenix) to as much as $12,705 (three top executives). More than 80 percent of the payments were $500 or more and the average bonus was around $900.

Before resigning in spring 2014, then-VA secretary Eric Shinseki pledged to suspend bonuses on the heels of a scandal over phony wait-time lists for veterans seeking health care at a Phoenix VA facility.

But Mr. Shinseki only cut back on bonuses for some executives in the Veterans Health Administration, and nearly half of VA employees continued to receive performance bonuses last year.

The House of Representatives has made several moves to end the VA’s bonus program, including passing a bill in February 2014 that would put a five year ban on bonuses for executives. It did not pass the Senate, and they compromised with the House on legislation that allows the VA to continue handing out bonuses, capped at $360 million annually.

VA spokesman James Hutton told USA Today that the 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.”

Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House VA committee, said that the VA touted its bonus program as a means to attract and retain talented employees, but that it instead has turned into part of a “disturbing trend of rewarding employees who preside over corruption and incompetence.”

He pointed out that in 2013, top officials at the beleaguered agency received $380,000 in performance bonuses. Many of these officials worked at hospitals that were under investigation for wait-time manipulation or where patients faced delayed care.

But Mr. McDonald’s agency awarded millions in taxpayer-funded bonuses last year to more than 156,000 employees. Among the recipients of bonuses were VA executives who oversaw construction of a VA hospital in Denver that was more than $1 billion over budget — they received $4,000 to $8,000 each, USA Today reported Wednesday.

Claims processors at the Philadelphia VA office, which a government watchdog identified as the worst in the country, received bonuses of $300 to $900 each. Managers in the Tomah, Wisconsin, VA facility — dubbed “Candyland” for its overprescribing of opiates to veterans, were awarded $1,000 to $4,000 each.

Before resigning in spring 2014, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki pledged to suspend bonuses on the heels of a scandal over phony wait-time lists for veterans seeking health care at a Phoenix VA facility.

But Mr. Shinseki cut back on bonuses for only some executives in the Veterans Health Administration, and nearly half of VA employees continued to receive performance bonuses last year, the paper reported, citing data from the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

VA spokesman James Hutton told the paper that the 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.”

Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the bonuses are part of a “disturbing trend of rewarding employees who preside over corruption and incompetence.”

The VA budget has risen 73 percent since 2009, but greater demand for services, mismanagement and other problems have led to a series of scandals at the agency involving delayed care, lost benefits claims, wasted resources and retaliation against whistleblowers.

Neither Mr. McDonald nor the president referred to the VA bonuses while speaking at the ceremony at Arlington. Mr. McDonald praised the president for his “tremendous support” of the agency’s efforts to reduce backlogs of veterans’ benefits claims.

“Veterans could not ask for stronger advocates than our president, vice president and their wives,” Mr. McDonald said.

Mr. Obama said his administration has made significant progress in several areas, including reducing homelessness among veterans.

“The good news is that in recent years we’ve made historic investments to boost the VA budget, expand benefits, offer more health care and mental health care for our wounded warriors, especially those with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury,” he said. “We’ve now slashed the disability claims backlog by nearly 90 percent. We’re reducing the outrage of veterans’ homelessness and have helped tens of thousands of our veterans get off the streets.”

The president said if his administration is to match words with deeds, “we’re going to keep investing in the facilities and the physicians and the staff to make sure that our veterans get the care that you need when you need it.”

“That is our obligation and we are not going to let up,” Mr. Obama said.

At a Veterans Day event in Racine, Wisconsin, House Speaker Paul Ryan said it’s important for Americans to salute the patriotism of veterans.

“This is the day for us to resolve that we will appreciate our veterans every day,” the Wisconsin Republican said.

Mr. Ryan said a “great way” to honor veterans is to support the Honor Flight network, which provides transportation for veterans and their families to Washington to visit the World War II Memorial.

While the president was speaking at Arlington, some veterans were holding a protest outside the gates of the White House to call for greater access to medical marijuana to treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress.

The Senate passed legislation Tuesday that would allow Veterans Health Administration doctors to authorize medical marijuana use for patients. The House has narrowly rejected the measure, but advocates are hopeful that it will be included in a compromise.

In the nearly two dozen states with medical marijuana laws, the Veterans Health Administration forbids its physicians from discussing marijuana as a treatment option with patients.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

• Anjali Shastry can be reached at ashastry@washingtontimes.com.


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