WASHINGTON – Months after a politically embarrassing $1 billion shortfall that put U.S. military veterans' health care in peril, Veterans Affairs officials involved in the foul-up got hefty bonuses ranging up to $33,000.
The list of bonuses to senior career officials at the Veterans Affairs Department in 2006, obtained by The Associated Press, documents a package of more than $3.8 million in payments by a financially strapped agency straining to help care for thousands of injured veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Among those receiving payments were a deputy assistant secretary and several regional directors who crafted the VA's flawed budget for 2005 based on misleading accounting. They received performance payments up to $33,000 each, a figure equal to about 20 percent of their annual salaries.
Also receiving a top bonus was the deputy undersecretary for benefits, who helps manage a disability claims system that has a backlog of cases and delays averaging 177 days in getting benefits to injured veterans.
The bonuses were awarded even after government investigators had determined the VA repeatedly miscalculated — if not deliberately misled taxpayers — with questionable methods used to justify Bush administration cuts to health care amid a burgeoning Iraq war.
Annual bonuses to senior Veterans Affairs officials now average more than $16,000 — the most lucrative in government.
The department said the payments are necessary to retain hardworking career officials.
Several watchdog groups questioned the practice. They cited short-staffing and underfunding at VA clinics that have become particularly evident after recent disclosures of shoddy outpatient treatment of injured troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
"Hundreds of thousands of our veterans remain homeless every day and hundreds of thousands more veterans wait six months or more for VA disability claim decisions," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. "The lavish amounts of VA bonus cash would be better spent on a robust plan to cut VA red tape."
Daniel Akaka, a Democratic senator from Hawaii and chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the payments pointed to an improper "entitlement for the most centrally placed or well-connected staff."
Seeking an explanation from Secretary Jim Nicholson, Akaka also asked the department to outline steps to address disparities in which Washington-based senior officials got higher payments than their counterparts elsewhere.
"Awards should be determined according to performance," said Akaka. "I am concerned by this generous pat on the back for those who failed to ensure that their budget requests accurately reflected VA's needs."
A Veterans Affairs spokesman, Matt Burns, said the department was reviewing Akaka's request. Burns contended that many of the senior officials had been with the department for years, with an expertise that could not be replicated immediately if they were to leave for the more profitable private sector.
"Rewarding knowledgeable and professional career public servants is entirely appropriate," he said. "The importance of retaining committed career leaders in any government organization cannot be overstated."
In 2006, the Veterans Affairs officials receiving top bonuses included Rita Reed, the deputy assistant secretary for budget, and William Feeley, a former VA network director who is now deputy undersecretary for health for operations and management.
Also receiving US$33,000 was Ronald Aument, the deputy undersecretary for benefits, who helps oversee the strained and backlogged claims system that Nicholson now says is unacceptable.
The bonuses are determined by the heads of the VA's various divisions, based in part on performance evaluations. All requests are submitted to Nicholson for final approval.
In July 2005, the Veterans Affairs Department stunned Congress by suddenly announcing it faced a $1 billion shortfall after failing to take into account the additional cost of caring for veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The admission, months after the department insisted it was operating within its means and did not need additional money, drew harsh criticism from both parties and some calls for Nicholson's resignation.
The investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, determined the VA had used misleading accounting methods and claimed false savings of more than $1.3 billion, apparently because President George W. Bush was not willing, at the time, to ask Congress for more money.