WASHINGTON – The chairman of a House panel wants to stop hefty bonus payments to senior Veterans Affairs officials until they reduce a severe backlog of veterans waiting for disability benefits.
Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., said Friday he was introducing legislation to place a hold on this year's bonuses after The Associated Press reported that senior VA officials involved in a budget foul-up which jeopardized veterans' health care received bonuses ranging up to $33,000.
Under the measure, 2007 bonuses could not be released until the VA pares down its backlog to under 100,000 cases — a feat the VA has said could take many months, if not years. Currently, the backlog of claims ranges from between 400,000 to more than 600,000, with delays averaging 177 days.
"It is shocking and scandalous even by the VA's own low standards that top officials at the VA would get performance bonuses when there's a backlog of over 600,000 cases," said Hall, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance.
A list obtained by the AP of bonuses to senior career officials in 2006 documents a generous 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.
The disclosure prompted outrage on Capitol Hill, where Democratic leaders have demanded an explanation from VA Secretary Jim Nicholson and said they would hold hearings to investigate. The VA says the bonuses were needed to help retain hardworking employees.
Among those receiving top bonuses of $33,000 was the deputy undersecretary for benefits, who helps manage a disability claims system with the backlog that Nicholson now says is unacceptable.
Also receiving top 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.
Annual bonuses to senior VA officials now average more than $16,000 — the most lucrative in government.