As Tampa Bay area veterans waited months or years for disability claims, and as patients endured excessive wait times at VA hospitals, the Department of Veterans Affairs rewarded top executives with performance bonuses.
Information provided by the House Veterans Affairs Committee shows VA executives received more than $2.8 million in performance awards last year.
"How do they dare give those people bonuses?" asked Gulfport Veteran Wes Thompson, who is still waiting for his disability claim. "If it was you or me and our jobs, and you didn't get it done -- you'd be walking the streets wouldn't you?”
The Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledged problems that caused a backlog for benefits claims and deadly delays in medical treatment. But House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller said all senior executives received successful performance reviews, and 65 percent received financial bonuses.
Miller said the VA has been awarding questionable bonuses for years. His committee flagged a director in St. Louis who received a $25,000 bonus as unsanitary dental equipment may have exposed patients to Hepatitis and HIV.
It also cited a construction chief who collected nearly $55,000 in bonuses, as building delays in Florida and other states cost $1.5 billion in overruns. It also pointed out a Washington VA executive in charge of disability claims who collected nearly $60,000 in awards as the benefits backlog swelled.
"It's like having the fox watch the hen house," said veteran John Poloney.
Poloney applied for additional benefits after he says a VA physician misdiagnosed his cancer. Like thousands of others, he's still waiting.
"They lose the records or misplace records or say they don't exist. This is classic VA and there is no accountability. That's the problem!"
A VA administrator told Congress the department needs bonuses to recruit and keep good managers. Meanwhile, the VA has also requested more than $17-billion in additional funding. Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, issued a statement indicated he's hard pressed to grant that request, given the problems within the department.
"I am committed to giving VA the resources it needs to provide our veterans with the care and benefits they have earned. But if there's one thing we've learned over the last few months, it's that we can't trust VA's numbers. That includes the $17.6 billion in additional funding Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson asked for today. Given that this figure seems to have magically fallen out of the sky today, after years of assertions from VA leaders at all levels that they had nearly every dollar and every person necessary to accomplish VA's mission, it would be an act of budgetary malpractice to blindly sign off on this request. VA has had hundreds of millions more in medical care funding than it could spend every fiscal year since 2010. So if VA truly needs this additional $17.6 billion, that would mean the VA administrators involved in past department resource allocation decisions are either incompetent, disingenuous or both." - Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans' Affairs
On Monday, the House and Senate agreed on a tentative deal to grant the VA's funding request (providing that it is directed to front-line care), as part of a broader reform package.