The Veterans Affairs Department said Wednesday it has asked an oversight agency to review the way the VA handed out $3.8 million in bonuses to senior officials last year.

Michael Kussman, the acting undersecretary for health, said VA Secretary Jim Nicholson made the request to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management after government watchdogs questioned the propriety of the awards, some of which went to senior officials involved in crafting a budget that came up $1.3 billion short and jeopardized veterans' health care.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that 21 of 32 officials who were members of VA performance review boards — the bodies charged with overseeing bonuses — received more than half a million dollars in payments themselves.

"The secretary has asked OPM to come and look at the process," Kussman said at a Senate hearing. He would not say whether the VA should put outsiders on the boards to ensure impartiality and boost public confidence in the system.

In its last known report on the issue — one involving NASA — the Government Accountability Office in 1980 urged that performance boards add credibility and objectivity to their decisions by including "one or more impartial members from outside the agency," although agencies are not required to do so.

With the exception of a panel tasked with reviewing the VA inspector general's office, all the VA's performance board members come from within the agency.

A House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on oversight is scheduled to hold hearings soon to investigate more than $3.8 million in bonuses awarded last year.

Groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America have called on Nicholson to explain why officials involved in budget foul-ups would be rewarded. The VA says the bonuses are need to retain hardworking senior officials.