Thursday, July 19, 2012

Despite a fiscal crisis, VA gave out $2.8 million in bonuses

Yesterday the House Oversight's Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations held a hearing about VA's continued inability to resolve claims in a timely fashion.  US House Rep Jason Chaffetz is the Subcomittee Chair and appearing before the Subcommittee were VA's Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, the VFW's Gerald Manar and Disabled American Veterans' Joseph Violante.

Around this time last year (August 2011), the Super Congress was created to address the United States' multi-trillion dollar debt. Six members from the House and six members from the Congress served in the Super Congress.  The Democrats were: Senator Patty Murray, Senator John Kerry,  Senator Max Baucus, House Rep James Clbyurn,  House Rep Xavier Becerra and House Rep Chris Van Hollen. The six Republicans were Senator Jon Kyl, Senator Rob Portman, Senator Pat Toomey, House Rep Fred Upton, House Rep Jeb Hensarling and House Rep Dave Camp.  They were tasked with devising a plan to cut $1.2 trillion from the nation's debt.  If their plan was not supported, then sequestration -- automatic cuts -- would take place this year.  Their plan did not pass.  Apparently sequestration will not effect the Defense Dept (I'm basing that on repeated statements during the Congressional hearings we've covered since fall 2011 -- primarily the Senate Armed Services Committee) and the White House has (finally) stated that the VA will also not be effected.

Maybe the VA should be?

In yesterday's hearing, it emerged that during this fiscal crisis, during the Great Recession when 8% unemployment (official figure of those still looking for work) has become the norm, during the administration's supposed pursuit of confronting the deficit, senior executives at the VA have received outrageous bonuses for doing their job.  And, I think many would agree, for doing their job badly.  When the VA has nearly a million unprocessed claims, it's not doing its job and no one -- especially senior executives -- deserve bonuses.   245 senior executives received $2.8 million in bonuses. 

From yesterday's snapshot:

Chair Jason Chaffetz:  Madam Undersecretary, the VA had reported that it awarded $2.8 million to 245 senior executives.  How do we justify that?  I mean, that's a very small group of people.  We've got hundreds of thousands -- close to a million -- veterans waiting in line and 245 people got $2.8 million in bonuses?  How do we justify that?

Allison Hickey: Chairman Chaffetz, thanks for the question.  First of all, I will tell you in VBA, since 2009, we have actually decreased by a full third the number of our SESs that are getting outstanding ratings. So we have done what this administration's asked us to do which is to really scrutinize the ratings that we are giving to our senior executives and bring them down. I'll tell you from a VBA perspective, I have 98 metrics, performance metrics, that I rate every one of our senior executives against.  They are performance based.

Chair Jason Chaffetz:  How --

Allison Hickey:  They are production and quality based.

Chair Jason Chaffetz:  How many --

Allison Hickey:  And in those environments where I do have outstanding leaders, I need to keep those outstanding leaders. They're making a difference for our veterans, their family members and survivors.

Chair Jason Chaffetz:  How many of them -- How many of the people that worked for you go those bonuses?

That is unacceptable.  If you've attended House or Senate Veterans Affairs Committe hearings in the last years, you're familiar with the fact that the VA's budget request each year to Congress is more than met and that they are repeatedly and regularly asked if they need more money to hire more staff, if they need this, if they need that.

But we've been attending the hearings for six or seven years now and the VA's never presented that they need X million for bonuses.  They've talked about needing money for hiring and training and equipment and that digital conversion that's forever on the verge of happening but never seems to actually take place.  But not one word about, "We need X and from that we'll be giving out X millions in bonuses."  They never made that request to either house of Congress.  In the Senate, the chamber's been under Democratic control the entire time (first under Chair Daniel Akaka now under Chair Patty Murray) while in the House it was Democratic control (Chair Bob Filner) and now Republican control (Chair Jeff Miller).  Regardless of whether the VA was making their case for more money to a Democratically controlled chamber or a Republican controlled chamber, they never, ever,  raised the issue of bonuses.

Probably they never raised it because there would have been bi-partisan laughter at the thought that the VA deserved bonuses when they still weren't able to settle claims in a timely fashion.

As was observed yesterday by a House member in the hearing, if anyone deserved a bonus -- if -- it would be the people on the front lines settling claims and providing customer service, not the senior executives.

The Congress needs to hold a hearing -- I doubt they will -- into these bonuses.  And this nonense of Allison Hickey's that she has this strict criteria when evaluating bonuses -- when the economy is a recession and when you're putting together a committee to propose cuts to the safety net (that's what the Super Congress was -- it was also known as the Catfood Commission -- popularized by Lambert of Corrente and our own Ruth -- because if the safety net were gutted that's what many elderly people would be consuming: cat food), you cease the bonuses.  You freeze them.

Considering all of Barack's attacks on Mitt Romney's business leadership in the last weeks, I'm surprised the Romney campaign isn't airing ads right now asking how the VA -- with its huge backlog and it's track record of no-accomplishments -- managed to give out $2.8 million in bonuses (to 245 people) when the country's is in the midst of a recession?

One of the few reporters reporting on yesterday's hearing is Jared Serbu (Federal News Radio -- link is text and audio).  Serbu notes, "Allison Hickey, who took over in 2011 as the VA's undersecretary for benefits, said the biggest hang-up for claims has been the mountains of paper records that claims adjudicators have to sift through in order to make their determinations. She said the VA realizes it can't dig out of the backlog with that paper-based system. But she vowed that system is going away and soon."  Yesterday, I noted we'd be dealing with one other aspect of the hearing in today's snapshot.  We're going to deal with more than one.  I saw a number of reporters at the hearing.  I'm not seeing their reporting.  I was hoping others would pick up points so that I didn't have to feel like I was the meanie repeatedly kicking Allison Hickey.  Fine, if others won't do their job, I will. So we'll note when her claim imploded in her face -- I honestly avoided that because I figured all the reports would lead with it -- when you lie to Congress and your lie is exposed as soon as you stop speaking, seems like that's the easiest thing in the world to cover.  We were already going to note her vanity.  I have no idea why you brag about yourself the way she did.  Maybe you feel your job's in jeopardy?  I don't know.  But it's one thing to credit your department with accomplishments and it's another thing to make a series of I-statements about what a great job you've done.  There's another area we may cover as well.

The following community sites -- plus the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and -- updated last night and today:

Okay.  I'm not sure why an e-mail came in last night but we'll note this from the DPC. 

That's Senator Benjamin Cardin on the START Treaty in 2010.  I have no problem noting that -- I'm puzzled since it's a 2010 video -- and no problem noting DPC -- when former-Senator Byron Dorgan did great work heading it, it was always a pleasure to note them.  But for future reference, something like that we will note.  I will not be carrying "Our opponents are ---"  I'm not interested.  If there's something you're going to do, fine.  I'm not going to participate in your attacks and squabbles.  The exception being Jill Stein's campaign can say whatever it wants about Democrats or Republicans and we'll note it. They're a third party (the Green Party) and, as such, they'll get more leeway from me.  But I'm tired of being online to begin with and I'm not going back to 2008 and trying to cover all the campaigns.  If we carried attack videos or releases from Democrats, then it would only be fair to do the same for Republicans.  Again, I'm puzzled by the video only because a 2010 one. But it fits well within the framework of what we will note this election year.  

Senator Patty Murray  is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and her office issued the following yesterday:

In the face of threatened delays, Murray brokers compromise to finally deliver health care to Camp Lejeune Veterans and their families
Omnibus includes comprehensive health care, housing, homelessness, education and benefits legislation for veterans
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, Wednesday, July 18, 2012, U.S. Senator Patty Murray, Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee helped ensure passage of the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 by unanimous consent.  This bipartisan, bicameral, and comprehensive legislation combines provisions of the Veterans Programs Improvement Act of 2011(S. 914, Report No. 112-088) and Honoring American Veterans Act of 2011 (H.R. 1627, Report No. 112-084 Part 1), as well as provisions from other Senate and House legislation.  This comprehensive package extends health care to veterans and their families who lived at Camp Lejeune, expands critical health programs, improves housing programs, enhances programs for homeless veterans, and makes needed improvements to the disability claims system. In the face of threatened delays on the bill, Senator Murray brokered a compromise today that allowed the bill to move forward.
"This comprehensive legislation makes improvements to almost every aspect of care and services for veterans, and I am proud of the work my committee put into bringing this omnibus bill together," Senator Murray said following passage of the bill. "This bill will finally provide health care to veterans and family members exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, expand eligibility for housing adaptation grants to more seriously injured veterans, and make help for homeless veterans more widely available."
Specifically, the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 would:
·         Provide health care for certain individuals stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.  This bill will extend hospital care and medical services coverage for certain illnesses and conditions to eligible veterans and family members who served on active duty or lived at Camp Lejeune.
·         Expand critical health care programs for veterans.  This bill will authorize VA to waive copayments for telehealth and telemedicine visits of veterans, expand beneficiary travel reimbursement for veterans living in highly rural areas, and improve reimbursement for state veterans homes.  In addition, the bill will enhance VA's teleconsultation and telemedicine capabilities to improve rural veterans' access to quality health care, protect veterans from sexual assault and other safety incidents, and expand TBI services. 
·         Enhance Specially Adapted Housing programs for disabled veterans.  This bill expands the eligibility for VA's specially adapted housing assistance grants to certain veterans with disabilities due to the loss or loss of use of one or more lower extremities that preclude ambulating without the aid of a supporting device. Senator Murray recently heard from a veteran who is severely injured with an above the knee amputation and an injury to his hip.  His combination of injuries made it incredibly difficult for him to live comfortably in his home, yet despite his serious injuries and mobility challenges, he did not meet current eligibility criteria for VA's adaptive housing programs to get the benefits that he so critically needed.  Senator Murray wrote a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki asking that eligibility criteria be adjusted accordingly, so that veterans in similar situations can get the benefits they deserve. This bill authorizes increased assistance to those disabled veterans who reside temporarily with family members and indexes levels of such assistance on an annual basis.  The bill also provides adaptive housing assistance grants to veterans with a lesser degree of vision impairment than what is required by current law.
·         Improve efforts to eliminate homelessness among veterans.  This bill will reauthorize a number of VA's programs to help homeless veterans and will expand eligibility for VA's emergency shelter services to include homeless veterans who are not seriously mentally ill.  In addition, the bill enhances grant programs for homeless veterans with special needs, by including dependents of veterans and male veterans with dependent children.  The bill also improves the grant and per diem program, which serves upward of 30,000 homeless veterans annually, by requiring VA to report on how to improve the per diem payment process for grantees.  In addition, the bill strengthens efforts by eligible entities to assist in case management services provided to the nearly 40,000 homeless veterans participating in the HUD-VASH program.
·         Strengthen veterans' benefits and improving claims processing.  This bill will improve VA's disability claims appeal processing by waiving initial review of claimants' new evidence by the agency of original jurisdiction unless specifically requested.  It is estimated that this provision could prevent approximately 1,600 remands from the Board of Veterans' Appeals per year allowing the Board more time to address the backlog of appeals.  Other significant improvements include, improving the process of filing jointly for social security and dependency and indemnity compensation and clarifying the month of death payment provisions to ensure surviving spouses receive proper and timely benefit payments. 
Matt McAlvanah
Communications Director
U.S. Senator Patty Murray
202-224-2834 - press office
202--224-0228 - direct

The e-mail address for this site is