Lawmakers Wants VA to Explain Bonuses

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By HOPE YEN
The Associated Press
Thursday, May 3, 2007; 6:48 PM

WASHINGTON -- Congressional leaders on Thursday demanded that the Veterans Affairs secretary explain hefty bonuses for senior department officials involved in crafting a budget that came up $1 billion short and jeopardized veterans' health care.

Rep. Harry Mitchell, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee on oversight, said he would hold hearings to investigate after The Associated Press reported that budget officials at the Veterans Affairs Department received bonuses ranging up to $33,000.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, who heads the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the payments pointed to an improper "entitlement for the most centrally placed or well-connected staff." He has sent a letter to VA chief Jim Nicholson asking what the department plans to do to eliminate any bonuses based on favoritism.

"These reports point to an apparent gross injustice at the VA that we have a responsibility to investigate," said Mitchell, D-Ariz. "No government official should ever be rewarded for misleading taxpayers, and the VA should not be handing out the most lucrative bonuses in government as veterans are waiting months and months to see a doctor."

One member of the House committee, Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill., called for Nicholson to resign.

A list obtained by the AP of bonuses to senior career officials in 2006 documents a generous package of more than $3.8 million in payments by a financially strapped agency straining to help care for thousands of injured veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among those receiving payments were a deputy assistant secretary and several regional directors who crafted the VA's flawed budget for 2005 based on misleading accounting. They received performance payments up to $33,000 each, a figure equal to about 20 percent of their annual salaries.

Also receiving a top bonus was the deputy undersecretary for benefits, who helps manage a disability claims system that has a backlog of cases and delays averaging 177 days in getting benefits to injured veterans.

The bonuses were awarded even after government investigators had determined the VA repeatedly miscalculated _ if not deliberately misled taxpayers _ with questionable methods used to justify Bush administration cuts to health care amid the burgeoning Iraq war.

Annual bonuses to senior VA officials now average more than $16,000 _ the most lucrative in government. All bonuses are proposed by division chiefs, then approved by Nicholson.

A VA spokesman said the payments are necessary to retain hardworking career officials. "Rewarding knowledgeable and professional career public servants is entirely appropriate," spokesman Matt Burns said.

Several veterans groups questioned the practice. They cited short-staffing and underfunding at VA clinics that have become particularly evident after recent disclosures of shoddy outpatient treatment of injured troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.


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© 2007 The Associated Press

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