In most endeavors, pay bonuses are awarded for efficiency and effort above and beyond the basic requirements of the job. That’s in most endeavors. Then there’s the Veterans Administration.
The Veterans Benefits Administration — a part of the VA — oversees the processing of claims filed by military veterans, and its executives were awarded millions in bonuses even as the backlog of claims increased.
As reported by the American-Statesman’s Jeremy Schwartz earlier this week, VA gave about $2.8 million in executive bonuses in 2011 to top ranking administrators in both its medical and benefits sections even as the wait time for processing claims increased.
Even the most casual of observers would call that a problem, but not a tone-deaf VA hierarchy. Until revelations surfaced about the bonuses, the salary enhancements were paid even as more and more veterans waited for their claims to be processed.
The backlog is nationwide but especially acute at the VA office in Waco. There, Schwartz reported, the average wait time for veterans who file a claim is 440 days, about 150 days longer than the national average. The office’s average wait time has nearly quadrupled since 2007, when the office processed claims about 50 days quicker than the national average. Yet, during that time, Carl Lowe, the top VA executive in Waco, received $53,436 in annual bonuses over five years.
Nice work if you get it. Even better if you can keep it, but Lowe retired in 2011.
Information about the bonus awards was derived from data obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta-based WSB-TV, both owned by Statesman parent Cox Media Group.
The idea that veterans should wait more than a year for a decision on disability claims is galling enough. After all, nobody asks military personnel to perform their duties whenever they feel like getting around to them.
Even more galling is that revelations were followed by the usual harrumphs, with no clear plan to motivate the behemoth VA bureaucracy to fix itself — and it has shown repeatedly an unwillingness or inability to do that.
“It’s reprehensible that they would even consider bonuses at all,” harrumphed U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Waco. “It reflects what I consider a broken culture that doesn’t put the veterans first.”
In Texas, state officials dedicated state money to augment federal claims processing. A $1.5 million state “strike force” team to hire more claims processors was created. The number of pending claims at the Waco VA office has fallen 15 percent, Schwarz reported. Yet, the wait time continues to grow. Two years ago, the average wait time was 403 days, when it was the longest in the country. The current 440-day wait time average is now the third longest in the U.S.
VA officials place the blame on an increase in Agent Orange disability claims, increased outreach to veterans and a sluggish economy adding to the workload. That Vietnam veterans who were exposed to the chemicals found in the defoliant Agent Orange would file claims shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone — nor should the VA have been oblivious to the link between economic conditions and veterans seeking assistance.
The VA announced Monday that it would withhold executive bonuses in 2013 and invest the savings in reducing its nationwide backlog of pending claims. Nearly 1 million veterans are waiting for their claims to be processed by the VA, including 43,511 in the area of Texas served by the Waco office.
The VA pledged to clear out the backlog of the most severely delayed claims by 2015, Schwartz reported. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn has filed legislation aimed at bolstering VA claims processing efforts using a system based on the Texas model.
Those are moves in the right direction, but words should be backed by action. This problem won’t be fixed by suggestions that things improve or warmed-over promises by the VA to do better. The Obama administration and Congress should follow up talk with imposition of strict performance and accountability measures for top VA officials — starting with the secretary and down the chain of command.
In announcing the suspension of the bonuses — not termination — a VA spokesman said the money would go toward clearing the backlog while providing no specifics on how to do it or even as much as even a general plan on how to hold well-compensated VA executives accountable for performance.
Accountability measures are the very least the administration and Congress can do to give the VA a swift kick in the pants. That it took publication of those bonuses so shamelessly awarded and so shamelessly collected demonstrates that it will take a shock to the system to grab the bureaucracy’s attention.
Veterans are also taxpayers and certainly deserve more from the people elected to represent them and the bureaucrats who are paid to serve them than rhetoric and unconscionable delays in claims processing.