By Adam Andrzejewski
A month after Congressional hearings and the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, the VA finally disclosed just how systemically routine the delays in treatment were for veterans. Their internal audit showed 70% of facilities used non-compliant appointment scheduling to make their official numbers look better. Since 2011, 56,000 returning veterans had to wait three months for a doctor’s appointment and 65,000 vets never actually got to see a doctor.
So for the last three years, where was the VA’s highly compensated auditing apparatus? Since 2008, $103 million was paid to Big Four accounting firm Grant Thornton and just in the last three years, executives at the Inspector General Office in Washington, D.C. collected $56 million in salary plus bonuses.
Then there’s the case of the $9,345 rescinded bonus to embattled Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman: then Secretary Shinseki cited "administrative error," but CEO of the Southwest Region Susan Bowers had vigorously defended the bonus as the "result of a highly successful rating."
What’s going on in the executive suite at the VA with their well-paid armies of Inspector Generals, Quality Assurance Officers and third party contracted auditors who are supposed to shine the light and correct malfeasance? Of the 400,000 job bonuses totaling $300 million since 2007, how many were not deserved and also due to "administrative error"?
Data collected via the Freedom of Information Act and posted at OpenTheBooks.com shows that the ongoing mistreatment of veterans isn’t a question of money but instead questionable practices and mis-allocation of resources. Since 2007, $136 billion in salary was paid out to employees of the VA, but less than 1 in 10 employees are doctors.
Across the VA network, the devil is in the spending details:
1. $103 million was paid out to Grant Thornton from 2008-2013 as the auditor of the VA. If a national Big Four accounting firm can’t find, flag and help correct the largest scandal in agency history, they should be fired. Is this the Anderson/Enron for Grant Thornton?
2. Salaries to Quality Assurance (QA) Officers totaled only $13 million since 2007 with almost no bonuses, only $65k. Cut to the bone, the job of the QA Officer is to make sure the VA follows the rules and veterans receive the care they deserve.
3. $375 million in salaries were paid to completely non-essential positions: Painters ($160M), Public Relations ($116M), Interior Designers ($52M), Gardeners ($46M). These positions also collected $1.4 million in bonuses since 2007. While veterans were dying, the VA brass was rewarding the efficiency of painters, PR flacks, interior designers, and gardeners with bonuses.
4. The VA paid $56 million in salaries to the Inspector General’s office in DC since 2011 plus bonuses. The bosses at IG couldn’t find the scandal either.
5. $5 million in bonuses for the top brass at national VA headquarters in Washington, D.C. (2011-2013) including: Inspector General Division ($429,000), General Counsel Division ($294,000), and $500,000 to the Secretary of Information and Technology Division- in-charge of the very system that failed to formally schedule medical appointments for veterans. Even former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s Office of the Secretary had $150,000 in bonuses, although he didn’t take one personally.
But, no bonus illustrates the absurdity of the VA system and the pain to veterans more than the $2,000,000 in bonuses paid to the Veteran Board of Appeals (2011-2013). If a veteran is lucky enough to appeal a healthcare claim to the national level- it was a process that took four years for the final decision.
So, why did it take recently retired Dr. Sam Foote in Phoenix, AZ to break the VA’s "cooking of the books," secret wait list scandal? Foote was so in fear of the culture that he retired first before whistleblowing.
After paying millions to outside auditors, and salaried employees such as inspector generals, national executives, CEOs of regional VA districts, Directors of VA hospitals, and the hundreds of thousands of well compensated VA doctors, nurses and rank and files employees, why did none of them have the courage to blow the whistle?
In a healthy, accountable culture, the VA would have fostered an environment that placed the health and welfare of veterans as top priority. With few exceptions, no one it seems was willing to buck the system.
Perhaps this is the best evidence yet that a complete overhaul of the VA is necessary. If the veterans are in charge of finding their own medical care, they will become the de facto auditors of the system. Let’s count on them to be better arbiters.
Disclosure: Adam Andrzejewski is founder of OpenTheBooks.com where 1.1 billion lines of government spending is posted online. All spending figures cited in this editorial are posted online at our website