Arizona Republic: House ends VA bonuses, Phoenix refuses to disclose data
The U.S. House unanimously passed a bill Tuesday that would ban bonuses for all Veterans Affairs Department employees through 2016, but the Phoenix VA Health Care System refuses to disclose how many of its employees received bonuses despite one official's acknowledgment that the information is readily available.
The Arizona Republic at least 10 times since March has asked local VA officials orally and in writing for information about extra performance pay. Those requests began after whistle-blowers alleged that employees manipulated patient wait times in the Phoenix system to show shorter wait times and trigger bonuses.
Two watchdog groups recently published online salary and bonus information for VA employees, but a Republic examination of those records suggests they are incomplete.
Jean Schaefer, a Phoenix VA spokeswoman, said the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center has compiled records showing those employees receiving bonuses the past three fiscal years. She said the hospital is not disclosing that information until authorized by a Freedom of Information Act manager in the VA's central office.
Schaefer would not provide the name of the manager refusing to authorize the release of the bonus information.
Acting Phoenix VA Director Steve Young, who promised full transparency, refused requests for interviews on the subject. Young replaced Sharon Helman, who was placed on administrative leave May 1 with two other administrators because of the wait-time and bonus scandal.
Termination proceedings have begun against Helman and other administrators since the VA confirmed that patient wait times were manipulated and that at least 18 Arizona veterans died while waiting for medical appointments. It remains unclear whether delayed care was to blame for their deaths.
The scandal also forced the resignation last month of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
VA investigators have confirmed that agency officials across the country were "gaming the system" of tracking appointments in order to get financial rewards. Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, Shinseki's replacement, last week said he ordered a stop to all bonuses for VA executives and had suspended extra performance pay to other employees.
On Tuesday, the House in a 426-0 vote went even further by seeking to ban all bonuses for the next few years, which would save the VA $400 million annually, according to House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the bill's author. Miller said that money could be used for expanded care for veterans.
The measure also would let veterans facing long delays for appointments or living more than 40 miles from VA facilities opt to get care from non-agency providers for the next two years. Some veterans already receive outside care, but the bill would require the VA to provide it for veterans enduring delays or who live far away. The measure now moves to the Senate, where there is a similar bill.
"This idea that you're entitled to a bonus is not good, and that's what we want to address, that people should be paid according to their merit and their work performance, rather than just thinking that every year they're going to get a bonus," said Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., a member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee.
Kirkpatrick added that the VA still lacks transparency and accountability despite the recent congressional and media attention.
Michael Thelen, a Mesa veteran, said he was particularly infuriated by payment of bonuses after it was disclosed Monday that VA medical centers nationwide have misrepresented or manipulated patient scheduling for more than 57,000 former military personnel.
"We need to quit giving bonuses to people for performing their jobs," said Thelen, who spoke Monday night at an American Legion forum in Phoenix. "It invites corruption to get these bonuses. If they didn't hand out these bonuses, and if there was a threat of losing their jobs (for manipulating data), then maybe veterans would be getting better services. They need to get the money to nurses and doctors to help veterans."
While the Phoenix VA has repeatedly refused to disclose its bonus information to The Republic, VA facilities across the country also have refused to release information to media outlets, according to Miller's committee.
The Veterans' Affairs Committee has compiled a list of nearly 70 recent instances in which the VA "has failed to respond to reporters' requests for information or refused to answer specific questions." The committee's website also states that "in many cases VA is failing in this responsibility, as department officials — including 54 full-time public affairs employees — routinely ignore media inquiries."
The Republic renewed its request to the Phoenix VA for bonus information after Open the Books, an online federal watchdog organization, published VA salary and bonus information it had obtained from the federal Office of Personnel Management.
Those records mirrored information recently published by FedSmith.com, another watchdog group that compiles federal records and attributed its data to the OPM.
Officials from the OPM did not return calls seeking more information on the data.
However, The Republic obtained the data from Open the Books and examined bonuses given to employees at the Phoenix VA hospital, eliminating those who worked for information technology, benefits-claim examiners and most legal employees.
The data, although incomplete, shows that bonuses ramped up when Helman became director at the Phoenix VA in early 2012. Helman could not be reached to discuss the bonuses.
The number of bonuses given out annually nearly tripled over three years, from 97 in 2011 before Helman arrived, to 161 in 2012 and 286 in 2013.
"This still-developing story of incredibly poor service, misallocated public resources and internal cover-ups was fueled with undeserved, escalating bonuses," said Adam Andrzejewski, Open the Books' founder.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.