Last year, it took a courageous whistleblower, Dr. Sam Foote at the Phoenix Veteran’s Administration facility, to focus national attention on a ‘cook-the-books’ wait-times bonus scandal. At the Phoenix facility alone, Dr. Foote suggested that up to forty veterans died while waiting to see a doctor and up to 1,300 veterans had to wait up to six months for an appointment.
Although the Phoenix facility was the touchstone, the scandal was national: Memphis, Hines-Chicago, Biloxi, Albuquerque, Miami, Gainesville, Central Alabama and many other facilities were cited as ‘troubled.’
Yet, during and after the worst scandal in Veterans Administration history, not only did the VA continue the practice of doling out bonuses, but nearly half the bonuses in 2014 were paid to the exact same employees as the previous year. Where’s the accountability?
As we recall, veterans died waiting to see a doctor while the official books showed no wait times. Still, after ‘cooking-the-books’ – and after weeks of scandalous stories – tens of thousands of undeserved performance bonuses were paid-out for up to $400 million per year.
Instead of triggering audits, forensic investigations and prosecutions, it turns out that just the opposite – in many cases – was happening at the VA. According to our data at OpenTheBooks.com, in the troubled centers at Hines, Memphis, Central Alabama and Biloxi, bonuses paid during 2014 actually increased. In Albuquerque and Miami, bonuses decreased, but still were higher than 2012. Of the seven most troubled facilities cited in the 2014 press coverage, only in Phoenix – the epicenter of the scandal – did the bonus dollars materially fall.
During Memorial Day 2015, we think back on the 2014 VA scandal. Did anything change?
National attention focused on the Phoenix director, Sharon Helman. In 2013, Helman received a $9,345 bonus – the largest bonus at Phoenix and twice as large as second place. On May 23, 2014, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki rescinded Helman’s bonus citing ‘administrative error.’ Then, Helman had the audacity to sue the VA and won back her bonus.
In Memphis, the administration cited ‘lack-of-funds’ and closed a popular aqua-therapy treatment pool but conferred bonuses for over $1 million in 2013. In 2014, the bonuses at Memphis increased again.
On NBC’s Meet the Press in February of this year, new VA Secretary Robert McDonald touted a ‘fact’ that "900 employees that were here before I was Secretary are no longer with us." But then McDonald said that only 60 of them were ‘laid off’ because of possible manipulation of wait-times. The Washington
Post Fact-Checker gave McDonald "Four Pinocchio’s" saying he "wildly inflated his firing statistics."
The VA’s lack of institutional accountability is stunning. And the disinformation from the new VA Secretary McDonald continues to cast a pall on the VA’s credibility.
Our data compiled at OpenTheBooks.com through a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal Office of Personnel Management
on VA bonuses shows that not much changed during 2014.
A few examples: At the Central Alabama VA in Montgomery, director James Talton was personally fired by Secretary McDonald and, according to press reports, was directly tied to the wait-time scandal. But, in 2014, bonuses increased at the Alabama center.
At one of the nation’s largest VA facilities, the bonuses at Edward Hines Jr. Hospital in Maywood, IL leapt to a three-year high in 2014. This is in spite of the fact that the facility director Joan Ricard resigned after U.S. Senator Mark Kirk called her "a liar and a criminal,"
and the FBI was reportedly investigating wait-time fraud.
Now, it’s been a year. Hardly anyone has been held accountable for one of the seediest institutional scandal in our nation’s history. The bonus dollars continue to flow. It looks more and more like a couple VA firings and resignations were nothing more than a Cold War shakeup at the Politburo. Our veterans deserve better.
Adam Andrzejewski is the founder of OpenTheBooks.com. The mission is to post ‘every dime online in real time’ of all federal, state and local public spending. This editorial is based on the data collected and posted within our data commons.