House passes bill banning SES bonuses at the VA

Thursday - 5/1/2014, 11:47am EDT

By Sean McCalley
Federal News Radio

The House passed a bill Wednesday to ban performance bonuses for senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It's an amendment to the bipartisan GI Tuition Fairness Act of 2013 and would prohibit the VA from awarding bonuses to senior executive service members for the next five years.

In a release from House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said passage would instill more accountability for the department as a whole.

"In response to a rash of media reports documenting how numerous VA senior executives have received sizeable 'performance' bonuses despite presiding over significant increases in benefits claim backlogs and even preventable veteran deaths, we've been asking VA for months to conduct a top-to-bottom review of its performance appraisal system," Miller said in the release. "So far, VA leaders have refused, and until we have complete confidence that VA is holding executives accountable — rather than rewarding them — for mistakes, no one should get a performance bonus."

Alongside the ban on bonuses, the bill focuses on VA hospitals and travel. It would mandate more reporting requirements for hospitals dealing with infectious diseases. The bill also includes more comprehensive reporting requirements for employees traveling abroad.

Strong and swift reactions

The Senior Executives Association is not happy with the bill, calling passage of the bill "unnecessary" and that it "does nothing to address the critical issues of claims backlog and access to patient care," in a release.

SEA said a blanket ban on all executives would unfairly punish the SES members who consistently work at a high level. The nonprofit also points out the VA already has a system in place that gives VA Secretary Eric Shinseki the authority to limit or deny executive bonuses for poor performance.

This is an authority Shinseki has exercised in the past. Last year, he denied bonuses to the executives in charge of the system that processes disability claims. During that time, about two-thirds of the veterans with pending claims waited, on average, more than 2-1/2 months for the VA to finish the process.

"Employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) care deeply for every veteran they are privileged to serve," said a VA spokesperson, in an email to Federal News Radio. "While there is always more work to do, hardworking VA employees have driven VA's progress and improvement in recent years, including enrolling 2 million more veterans in high-quality VA health care, reducing veterans' homelessness by 24 percent, providing post-9/11 GI Bill educational benefits to more than 1 million students, and decreasing the disability claims backlog by more than 45 percent."

The spokesperson added VA "must remain competitive to recruit and retain the best people in order to continue our progress."

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