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VA bonuses went to officials at delay-prone hospitals

Jul. 3, 2014 - 08:56PM   |  
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The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona. (Christian Petersen / Getty Images)
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More than $380,000 in bonuses were awarded last year to directors and top executives at 38 VA hospitals where investigators are looking into claims of falsified appointment records or where there have been excessive delays in patient care, according to agency documents provided by an investigating House committee.

The bonuses were part of $2.7 million in extra pay given in 2013 to top ranking officials inside the troubled agency, a practice the Department of Veterans Affairs suspended earlier this year amid concerns that the money might have “incentivized inappropriate actions.”

Specifically, the bonuses might have led VA workers to alter wait-time records to make it appear veterans were being seen by doctors sooner than they actually were, according to the June 27 findings presented to President Obama by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Ron Nabors. Wait-time data for years have been a part of performance reviews on which bonuses are based.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Thursday provided documents showing the bonuses awarded to hospital officials who reported wait times far shorter than how long veterans were actually waiting to see doctors.

One case is the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in California where the director, Elizabeth Freeman, received a $12,579 bonus in February.

Her facility reported wait times of fewer than 18 days for new patients. But more recent numbers uncovered by the VA show an average wait of 63 days.

In one of his last actions before resigning under fire, outgoing VA Secretary Eric Shinseki suspended the award of bonuses for 2014 and ordered that patient wait-times no longer be a part of employee performance reviews.

He lamented what he called a “breach of integrity” on his watch.

Gina Farrisee, a VA personnel official, told Congress on June 20 that annual bonuses have been a vital tool for recruiting and retaining top, talented medical officials. “Our ability to allocate performance awards to our highest performers is vital,” she said.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has said that “several supervisors” are under criminal investigation by the Justice Department for manipulating wait-time information.

“VA’s sordid bonus culture is a symptom of a much bigger organizational problem: the department’s extreme reluctance to hold employees and executives accountable for mismanagement that harms veterans, said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “The VA secretary has the authority to rescind these bonuses anytime within a year of when they were paid, and I am calling on him to take this action where he deems appropriate.”

Other questionable cases where bonuses were awarded:

■ Cynthia McCormick, director of the Cheyenne VA Medical Center, received an $8,265 bonus for 2013. Her hospital and one of its satellite outpatient clinics in Fort Collins, Colo., came under investigation for instructing workers how to falsify wait-time data. She later defended what happened as errors that resulted from “misunderstood” policies.

■ Susan Bowers, a regional medical director in the Southwest received $8,985. She oversaw a region that included a Phoenix VA where the scandal first erupted amid allegations that patients died waiting for care. E-mails show that Bowers, who was forced into early retirement this year, was aware of falsified wait-time records.

■ Thomas Wisnieski, director of the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System in Gainesville, Fla., was awarded $8,114 in February. Recently released data show that 4,200 current patients in the system are waiting more than 90 days to see a doctor for the first time.

■ Elizabeth Goolsby, director of the Fayetteville VA Medical Center in North Carolina, received $6,912 for work in 2013. Recent VA data show that more than a quarter of all hospital patients, including established and new patients, wait longer than a month to see a doctor.

■ John Pierce, the medical inspector for VA health administration, got an $8,262 bonus. He recently came under criticism from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel — which protects federal whistle-blowers — for downplaying complaints brought to his attention by VA employees complaining of delays in health care. He recently retired.

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