VA defends ‘outlandish’ performance rating, bonus systems

Despite reports of delayed patient treatments, falsified records and preventable veteran deaths, the Department of Veterans Affairs said all of its 470 senior executives have been rated “successful” over the past four fiscal years.

The ratings have sparked outrage among members of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, whose chairman called the performance rating and bonus system at the VA “outlandish.”

“Based on this committee’s investigations, outside independent reports and what we have learned in the last few months, I wholeheartedly disagree with VA’s assessment of its senior staff,” Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said at a hearing Friday.

Metrics set a low bar

The VA has an OPM-certified SES performance appraisal system, Gina Farrisee, assistant secretary for human resources and administration at the VA, said in her testimony. The agency uses five rating levels, ranging from unsatisfactory to outstanding, and the performance standards appear on VA’s Senior Executive Performance Agreement form.

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But the consistently high ratings made congressmen question the metrics VA uses.

“You put the bar down here, so that anybody can step over it,” Rep. David Roe (R-Tenn) said. “If your metrics are low enough that almost everybody exceeds them, then your metrics are not very high.”

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.) compared the rating system to “grade inflation” in the academic world.

“It’s hard for me to believe that 80 percent of employees can [perform] above and beyond what the expectation is,” she said. “And it makes me feel like the expectation is lowered to a place that doesn’t serve our veterans the way we had wished.”

Debate over bonuses

House committee members also criticized the awarding of bonuses to senior executives.

Data from the VA shows the agency paid nearly $3 million in bonuses last year to SESers. Some individuals collected upward of $50,000 in bonuses.

Michael Moreland, who directed VA’s Pittsburgh Healthcare System, received a $63,000 bonus, despite an investigation that revealed a legionella outbreak in the system led to the death of six patients.

“To the average American, $63,000 is considered to be a competitive annual salary — not a bonus,” Miller said.

In light of investigations at veterans’ health centers, acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has temporarily suspended bonuses for SESers.

A bill circulating in the House includes a provision to cancel bonuses through 2016. Miller said the VA would save $400 million annually by eliminating bonuses, and the agency could use the money for expanded care.

But Farrisee defended the bonus system, saying that incentives are essential in “tough labor markets.”

“To remain competitive in recruiting and retaining the best personnel to serve our veterans, we must rely on tools, such as incentives and awards that recognize superior performance,” she said.

Self-rating?

Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) raised concerns at the hearing over the VA’s self- appraisal system.

According to his briefing, Benishek said SESers work with their supervisors to create performance review plans each fiscal year, and then they rate their own performance at the end of the year. The employee’s direct supervisor then reviews the rating.

“So then the direct supervisor doesn’t actually write the performance review themselves. The employee writes the performance review,” he said. “It makes us not want to trust anything that comes from you people.”

Farrisee defended the performance review system, saying that employees work closely with supervisors and that the ratings are not arbitrary.

“Knowing what we know now … do you think that the department’s assessment, that 100 percent of senior managers at VA have been ‘fully successful’ in the past four years, is in line with reality?” Miller asked Farrisee.

“If we knew what we knew today at that time, it is unlikely that their performance would have reflected what it reflected at the time the reports were written,” Farrisee said.

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