How Vets Rate VA Care Can’t Be Factor In Feds Bonuses

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Luke Rosiak Investigative Reporter
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What veterans say about the quality of care they get in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities can’t be factored into the size of the cash bonus employees are awarded, thanks to a grievance brought by a government workers union and affirmed by a Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) decision.

In a previously unreported 2010 decision, the FLRA ruled taxpayers must fund retroactive bonus checks, with interest, to VA employees who got smaller bonuses because of negative feedback from veterans.

The decision illustrates one of the countless bureaucratic obstacles to fixing what many view as the federal government’s sickest department.

Veterans rate aspects of their care at VA hospitals in the Survey of Health Experiences of Patients (SHEP). Patients responding to the 2009 SHEP, for example, had scathing assessments of their treatment at the Hampton, Va., medical center. Its director decided to include that in a decision to reduce discretionary employee bonuses by 25 percent.

A potential innovation to make sure the department is centered upon the needs of veterans was immediately shot down.

Even though employees still get bonuses, including sometimes sizable ones, the union argues veterans’ views of how well or poorly they are cared for can’t in any way affect performance awards at the federal department with the sole purpose of caring for veterans.

An arbitrator agreed, ruling that when veterans express discontent with hospital employees as a group, individual employees have no ability to influence or the behavior of that group.

“SHEP scores reflect the center’s overall performance and not that of individual employees,” and are “a factor beyond their control,” the arbitrator writes.

The director can’t use her discretion on how much money employees deserve as a bonus, the FLRA held, because for the last 20 years the hospital had given out as much money as was available in the budget to employees with high ratings. This constitutes a “past practice” that cannot be changed without the union’s prior approval, even though the VA had no obligation to ask for its input to begin with.

The adamant demand that cash bonuses for employees are the priority even if veterans were seething with the quality of employees they deal with is a blow to the image VA belatedly tried to cultivate as being “veteran-centric.”

“Their bonuses are more important than what veterans feel, know or think–even the dead ones,” says Tony Woody, a 100 percent disabled veteran from New Hampshire.

When it comes to inflated ratings, “they had the same thing in the Navy at one point where everybody started getting 4s on a 4 point scale, until you couldn’t tell the good from the bad anymore. So they changed the system,” he says.

But the VA has grown so large its legions of employees have become an “employee community” that organizes for its own materialistic interests in an almost zero-sum game with veterans, he says, calling it “infested with corrupt, bad employees you can’t get rid of.” Years of undeserved “outstanding” ratings make it harder for managers to establish fire-worthy conduct in lengthy “due process” proceedings.

In practice, he says, that means a knee-jerk opposition to any innovation and adaptation, such as the reconfiguration of the evaluation process the Navy engaged in. The VA needs change, but any changes must be approved by the union, and no changes will be supported unless they result in greater monetary compensation to employees.

The VA awards more than $100 million in bonuses each year based on performance evaluations, with huge numbers of employees being rated “outstanding.” The bonuses have even been given to employees immediately after engaging in high-profile misconduct that harmed veterans.

Earlier this year, for example, Kimberly Graves was reported to have received an $8,700 bonus the same year she was investigated for tricking a veteran-turned-hospital director into moving to Baltimore so she could take his job, which had less work than hers but which paid the same amount and included $130,000 in relocation benefits. She refused to discuss the incident with Congress, but remains employed by the VA and was recently transferred to VA’s deeply troubled Phoenix facility to help clean it up.

The Memphis VA hospital shut down a therapeutic pool for veterans, citing lack of funding. The employees were paid $1 million in bonuses.

Top officials at VA often contend that, with the exception of a few mistakes, its concentration of high performance ratings mean it has a stellar workforce. Veterans say there’s simply a culture of giving out “5s” on the 5-point scale across the board because the money being awarded in bonuses isn’t taken from managers.

The fact that the union fought to prevent the opinions of veterans who are knowledgeable about VA employee performance likely will bolster critics in Congress and elsewhere who contend the “outstanding” ratings say more about low standards than about exceptional performance.

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