The chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on Wednesday called for a five-year ban on performance bonuses for senior Department of Veterans Affairs executives, citing awards paid amid a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Pittsburgh and other systemic failures.
“The fact that so many VA executives collected huge performance bonuses year after year while continually failing at their jobs calls into question whether department leaders even know the meaning of the word ‘accountability,’ ” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
The VA listed total payments of $2.3 million in executive performance awards for fiscal year 2012, down from $3.3 million in 2009. Miller has demanded a public explanation from VA officials for the executive bonuses in Pittsburgh and others paid across the country. He highlighted bonuses granted to VA executives in Georgia, Ohio and Texas in the past several years even as claims backlogs and a host of other problems festered.
Pittsburgh VA CEO Terry Gerigk Wolf and her supervisor, regional VA director Michael Moreland, received performance bonuses of $12,924 and $15,619, respectively, for fiscal year 2011 while a Legionnaires’ outbreak gripped the Pittsburgh VA system.
Bacteria-tainted water at the VA campuses in Oakland and O’Hara sickened as many as 21 patients in 2011 and 2012, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, and five of those veterans died.
“How could they get a bonus when something like that occurred?” asked Joseph Cocco, state commander for the American Legion of Pennsylvania. He called Moreland and Wolf’s bonuses “a disgrace” that broke veterans’ trust, saying he expects the American Legion “would be 100 percent behind” Miller’s bonus ban.
“I think the wave is building to hold them accountable,” said Judy Nicklas of Adams, whose father-in-law, Navy veteran William Nicklas, 87, died during the outbreak. She supports the bonus ban, although her family is frustrated that Moreland remains in power while investigations continue, she said.
“As long as he’s in that position, I don’t have a lot of trust. I just can’t trust while he or Terry Wolf are in those positions,” Nicklas said. Her family has announced plans to sue the VA.
Asked for interviews with Moreland and Wolf, VA Pittsburgh spokesman David Cowgill said they had no comment.
VA national spokesman Mark Ballesteros repeated earlier statements that some VA executive performance awards for fiscal year 2012 were deferred pending further review. He indicated 16 total bonus deferrals in the Veterans Health Administration include at least one in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. He would not identify the executives affected.
“To continue to serve our nation’s veterans, VA must continue to attract and retain the best and brightest leaders,” Ballesteros said.
VA representatives have declined to answer questions about the 2011 bonuses given to Wolf and to Moreland, who oversees the regional Veterans Integrated Service Network 4. The Pittsburgh-based service VISN includes VA facilities in most of Pennsylvania and some or all of those in five neighboring states.
Moreland came under fire again last week after winning the White House-approved Presidential Distinguished Rank Award, a civil service honor that included a separate performance award of nearly $63,000. Miller has said the VA administration should recoup that money, although lawmakers lack a strong mechanism to recall the earlier performance bonuses.
His proposed bonus ban would be incorporated as an amendment to the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2013. Miller said he also wants “a top-to-bottom review of (the VA) performance appraisal system.”
Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, joined Miller to call the status quo “simply unacceptable.”
“Awarding big bonus money to those who have presided over systemic failures at the VA should be immediately suspended and instead be put toward delivering the highest standards of service and care for our veterans,” Murphy said.
A congressional oversight subcommittee and the criminal division of the VA’s Office of Inspector General are investigating the Pittsburgh outbreak. David J. Hickton, U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania, has said his office will conduct an independent review of the handling of the Legionnaires’ cases in the VA Pittsburgh system.
May 9th, 2013