- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Veterans advocates mostly supported a bill Tuesday that would allow the VA secretary to take back a bonus if an employee was found to have been manipulating data.

Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chair of the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee, said the bill would allow the VA secretary to rescind a bonus whenever he deemed it appropriate, though the employee would have a chance to appeal the secretary’s decision.

“I believe the ability to recoup a bonus based on bad or manipulated performance data is a tool the secretary needs and that the American public would expect,” Mr. Miller said at a hearing.

Last year, a whistleblower at the Phoenix VA hospital alleged that veterans were dying while waiting for care on secret lists in an effort to make wait times appear shorter than they were and thus secure large bonuses for the bosses. Under Mr. Miller’s proposal, the VA would be able to take those bonuses back if it was discovered that they were awarded for fraudulent data.

The VA has paid more than $380,000 to top executives at 38 hospitals across the country that are currently under investigation for falsifying wait times as part of last year’s scandal, according to a release from Mr. Miller’s office.

When previously questioned on whether or not they could recoup bonuses, VA officials told the committee they were unsure if they had that authority. Mr. Miller said this bill would clear up the confusion.

Aleks Morosky, deputy director of the national legislative service for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said employees who are putting veterans’ lives at risk or fraudulently serving the government shouldn’t be eligible to keep a bonus.

“We feel like bonuses should be awarded for exceptional performance,” he said. “Clearly anybody who is putting veterans at risk or defrauding the government is not serving exceptionally.”

Blake Ortner, the deputy government relations director for Paralyzed Veterans of America, said that while his organization supported the intent of the law to hold VA employees more accountable, there were some concerns about details, such as how long after awarding a bonus the department could decide to take it back and who would preside over appeal hearings so the secretary wasn’t ruling on his own decisions.

The appeal hearing’s decision would be final and not subject to additional appeals, the bill states.

Some VA employees and lawmakers have worried that the department is still too focused on rewarding quantity over quality, which they say will lead to data manipulation in both health care and claims processing as employees rush to meet performance goals and earn bonuses.

The VA had no opinion to share on the bill, saying that it was still looking into what changes it would make across the government and would submit a position to Congress when it had finished its research.

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“We note that this legislation could change laws outside of our department and as such are consulting with other government agencies,” said David McLenachen, acting deputy undersecretary for disability assistance at the Veterans Benefits Administration.

• Jacqueline Klimas can be reached at jklimas@washingtontimes.com.

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