August 18, 2014

Preventing Ill-Gotten Rewards

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

It is bad enough to learn of the doctored waitlists at some U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities.  It is incomprehensible that the staff involved in the waitlist doctoring received merit-based bonuses funded by the taxpayer.  Those involved in the waitlist scandal ought to reimburse the taxpayer for their bonuses.  Additionally, the VA must change its system for awarding and recognizing what should be exemplary work.  

The VA has long been under pressure to better serve veterans and address the care and claims backlog.  Three years ago, the VA began to factor in wait-time targets when determining staff bonuses.  According to reports, some VA staff created secret wait lists in order to appear to have complied with the targets and qualify for bonus pay.  Following the scandal, then-Acting Secretary Sloan D. Gibson  acknowledged that, "The metrics we [the VA] used to measure performance became an end in themselves, rather than a means to better the quality of Veterans' care."  

It goes without saying that VA employees who gamed the system should not have received bonuses based on their misconduct.  It is particularly shameful that millions of dollars in taxpayer funded bonuses were being dispensed when a significant number of veterans were not receiving quality care.  Common sense dictates that limited resources should go to directly assisting those who were intended to receive care, our nation's veterans.  The men and women of our Armed Forces, who have given greatly to protect America, deserve far better.       

To get at the root of this problem, I co-sponsored S. 2545, bipartisan legislation introduced by Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire).  This legislation would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to require VA employees who received bonuses in 2011 or later to repay those bonuses if they contributed to a purposeful omission of the names of veterans waiting for health care from an electronic wait list.  The employees' supervisors would also be required to pay back bonuses if they knew, or reasonably should have known, of the employee's purposeful omission of the names of veterans from electronic wait lists. 

I co-sponsored the Senate version of the recently enacted VA reform legislation, or H.R. 3230, the Veterans' Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014.  H.R. 3230 contained related provisions that would begin to address this issue.  The legislation would cap the amount of awards or bonuses through Fiscal Year 2024.  The VA would be required to establish disciplinary procedures for employees who knowingly falsify or require another employee to falsify data pertaining to wait times and quality measures.  Scheduling and wait-time metrics must not be used as factors in determining performance awards.  Instead, performance awards must be based on the quality of care received by veterans at VA medical facilities.  The VA would also be required to publish wait-times for scheduling appointments at VA facilities on the public websites of VA medical centers and in the Federal Register.  I support these changes, although they do not go far enough.  Senator Ayotte's measure, S. 2545, must also be enacted.      

Congress must work to reform the VA and improve veterans' access to quality care.  To help guide my consideration of VA reform efforts, I recently invited Idaho veterans to share both their positive and negative VA experiences through a brief survey that can be accessed through my website at  https://www.crapo.senate.gov/contact/survey.cfm or by contacting my offices.  The input from this survey will assist me in determining what reforms will best accomplish the improvements needed for Idaho veterans. 

# # #

Word Count:  583