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VA agrees to examine how it awards bonuses

June 13, 2007|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday acknowledged problems in its award of $3.8 million in bonuses to senior officials who put healthcare at risk and said it would consider changes to avoid conflicts of interest and improve oversight.

Testifying before a House panel, Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Gordon Mansfield insisted the hefty awards were appropriate and necessary to retain hardworking employees.

But he agreed the process might lack objectivity because members who sit on VA performance review boards -- charged with recommending bonuses for top employees -- all come from within the agency and typically get bonuses themselves.

"I understand the issue you are raising," Mansfield said when lawmakers asked whether the VA should add outsiders to its board to reduce peer pressure on VA employees to take care of their own at the expense of taxpayers. "Bringing some outside influence might make the system better."

Mansfield said VA Secretary Jim Nicholson would consider adding outsiders to the VA's review boards. In its last known report on the issue, the Government Accountability Office in 1980 urged departments to include outsiders to add credibility to bonus awards.

"VA remains committed to the statutory imperative of executive bonuses to both reward and to encourage continued excellence in performance. We've got some damn good people," a subdued Mansfield said.

Mansfield spoke as a few members of a veterans advocacy group, Grassroots America, silently held up signs in the hearing room that read, "My 80% disabled son backlogged 1 1/2 years," and "$$ for vets not execs."

The hearing before a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee comes after the Associated Press reported last month that 21 of 32 officials who were VA performance review board members received more than half a million dollars in payments.

Among them: nearly a dozen senior officials who received bonuses ranging up to $33,000. Those officials, however, were involved in crafting a budget that came up $1.3 billion short by repeatedly failing to anticipate the needs of growing numbers of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Also rewarded was the deputy undersecretary for benefits, who manages a system with severe backlogs of veterans waiting for disability benefits. The current wait for veterans averages 177 days, nearly two months longer than the VA's goal of 125 days.

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