Central Texas VA boss received $50,000 in bonuses, even as disability claims stacked up


Even as the backlog of Texas veterans’ disability claims grew to historic proportions — eventually resulting in the nation’s longest wait for wounded veterans — the former director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Waco regional office received more than $53,000 in performance bonuses between 2007 and 2011.

Massive backlogs of disability claims have plagued the VA benefits system nationwide in recent years, but they have been particularly acute at the Waco regional office, which covers a large swath of the state, including most of Central Texas. The average wait time for veterans who file a claim there 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 VA officials awarded former regional director Carl Lowe with $53,436 in annual bonuses over five years, according to data obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta-based WSB-TV, both owned by Statesman parent Cox Media Group. In all, the VA gave about $2.8 million in executive bonuses in 2011 to top ranking administrators in both its medical and benefits sections.

On Monday, the VA announced 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.

“It’s reprehensible that they would even consider bonuses at all,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Waco. “It reflects what I consider a broken culture that doesn’t put the veterans first.”

Veterans advocates say the halting of executive bonuses has come too late.

“The millions of dollars in excessive bonuses paid to VBA leaders would have been better spent on new staff, improved training and faster implementation of urgently needed computer systems so our veterans can receive prompt and accurate disability claim decisions,” said Paul Sullivan, veterans outreach director for the Maryland-based Bergmann and Moore law firm.

In 2007, Lowe received $15,000; after receiving no bonus in 2008 he received another $15,000 in 2009, $13,888 in 2010 and $9,548 in 2011. He retired at the end of 2011, after almost 11 years as regional director. VA officials didn’t release Lowe’s salary Tuesday.

Lowe couldn’t be reached for comment.

Alarmed by the growing backlog in Texas, state officials have diverted state funds to help the federal claims processing effort. Last summer, they announced the creation of a $1.5 million state “strike force” team to hire additional claims processors to develop and expedite claims. The processors are located at state and VA offices.

“For far too long, we have failed to keep our commitment to our veterans, and these long wait times shouldn’t warrant a reward to VA directors.” said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who has filed legislation aimed at bolstering VA claims processing efforts using a system based on the Texas model.

Since the state team was created, the number of pending claims at the Waco office has fallen 15 percent; the average wait time however continues to grow, from 403 days in July 2012, when it was the longest in the nation, to 440 days, now the third-longest wait. VA officials in Waco have attributed the increase in wait times to a recent rise in Vietnam-era Agent Orange-related claims, as well as the economic downturn and outreach to veterans.

Nationally, VA officials still say that they will meet a 2015 goal to eliminate the backlog of the most severely delayed claims. “We remain confident that VBA senior executives are dedicated to our nation’s veterans, and they will continue to lead our drive toward VA’s goal: eliminating the claims backlog in 2015,” VA officials said in a statement Tuesday.

Lowe’s bonuses came even as the Waco regional office received poor marks in a 2010 VA inspector general report, which found the office to be in compliance in only three of the 12 activities measured by inspectors. Of the disability ratings decisions reviewed by the inspectors, 36 percent were determined to be inaccurate; staffers were also found to lack sufficient training in processing post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury claims. By then, both had been named the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And inspectors found higher than average error rates in inputting claims dates, resulting in the office’s performance appearing better than it really was.


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