- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Atlanta network of Veterans Affairs medical centers doled out more than $2 million in employee bonuses over the past four years, but failed to properly maintain medicine carts, causing nurses at one center to administer drugs and treatments belatedly.

The VA inspector general, the agency’s internal watchdog, reported this week on the problems at the Decatur, Ga., health center, the latest in a growing list of shortcomings in the veterans health network nationwide that has angered Congress.

Investigators found some of the carts, which require electricity to aid nurses, didn’t have enough battery life and had to remain constantly plugged into the wall, severely limiting their mobility. Other carts lacked working computers.

The problems resulted in some patients receiving medications up to three hours late, investigators reported.

“Seventeen of the 19 nurses we interviewed reported that they have administered medications late because they did not have access to a working medication cart,” the investigative report said.

Such mismanagement worries veterans’ advocacy groups, such as the American Legion.

“Our first priority is veterans. The first priority is always veterans,” said Verna Jones, the director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation for the Legion. “When something happens that’s hindering medication, it’s unacceptable, and then everything else comes secondary to timely care of veterans and veterans’ health.”

Though Ms. Jones declined to comment specifically on the bonuses, she said this incident is just part of a pattern of backward incentives for VA workers and decision-makers.

“There were allegations that the reason for the recent scandal with the secret waiting list was that the wait list was tied to performance measures, which were tied to the bonuses,” she said.

The Office of Inspector General did note in the report, however, that administrators were aware of the problem and that nurses had some alternatives to using the cart, though medication was often delayed anyway.

The Decatur facility in the report paid out $3,374 in bonuses in fiscal year 2013, and the greater Atlanta network of VA facilities paid out $2,414,450 in bonuses from 2007 through 2013, according to government spending watchdog Open the Books.

Leadership in Atlanta has changed over that period, with current Medical Center Director Leslie Wiggins replacing James Clark in May 2013. Mr. Clark had previously come under fire for the bonuses, and Ms. Wiggins did not receive a bonus in fiscal year 2013.

Wednesday’s report also said hospital leaders were trying to purchase new equipment, but described the acquisition process as “slow.”

The report comes amid harsh criticism by lawmakers against VA employee bonuses. Previous controversy has focused on waiting-time coverups and related deaths.

At a hearing focusing on VA bonuses in June, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Rep. Jeff Miller, said the VA had an “outlandish bonus culture” and added, “Instead of using bonuses as an award for outstanding work on behalf of our veterans, cash awards are seen as an entitlement and have become irrelevant to quality work product.”

In the Senate, Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill and New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte introduced a bill on July 3 to reclaim VA bonuses from officials who lied about patients’ wait times.

“The use of secret wait lists by VA employees to hide actual wait times resulted in the delay or denial of veterans’ access to timely care,” Mrs. Ayotte said in a statement. “It’s outrageous that employees who deliberately manipulated wait lists received bonus pay, and they must be held fully accountable for their misconduct — starting with repaying the funds they wrongly received.”

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