A House-Senate agreement on how to reform the broken Department of Veterans Affairs will let the VA hand out up to $360 million in bonuses to its employees each year, even though the House voted just weeks ago to strip all VA bonuses through 2016.
The compromise bill announced Monday by the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committees says VA bonuses will be capped at $360 million annually for the next ten years. But that cap is just 10 percent below the $400 million in bonuses the VA has distributed in recent fiscal years, and will allow up to $3.6 billion in bonuses to be awarded over the next decade.
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, accompanied by House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., announce their agreement on a VA reform bill on Monday. Their proposal would allow bonuses to be awarded to VA officials, and gives fired VA officials an appeal process. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
"In each of fiscal years 2015 through 2024, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs shall ensure that the aggregate amount of awards and bonuses paid by the Secretary in a fiscal year… does not exceed $360,000,000," the bill says.
A description of the bill adds that members expect the VA to implement this cap in a way that does not "disproportionately impact lower-wage employees," although the legislation itself does not include any restriction on how to award the money.
The $360 million cap on bonuses is a far cry from the House's unanimous vote in June to eliminate all VA bonuses, and use the $400 million savings to provide expanded health care options for veterans.
The House voted 421-0 in June to strip VA bonuses in retaliation for what they saw as an incompetent VA that was handing out millions to senior officials. The bonuses outraged members of both parties, since they were being given out even as officials conspired to make it look like veterans were not waiting very long for health appointments, and then covered up their efforts to manipulate this data.
"Our latest estimates suggest that a temporary elimination of bonuses and other incentives will free up roughly $400 million per year that can be immediately utilized for the expanded patient choice options under this bill," House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said at the time.
The bill stripping VA bonuses was so popular, the House held the vote again because some members missed the vote — members approved it later the same day 426-0.
Aside from language on bonus awards, VA employees also won a major victory in the bill when it comes to how they are disciplined for poor performance in the health care scandal.
The House-Senate agreement includes Senate-passed language that says senior officials can be fired or demoted, but also gives these officials access to an appeal process. Specifically, the final agreement gives officials seven days to appeal firings or demotions to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which much decide these cases within 21 days.
The bill does say that officials will not receive pay while appealing to the Merit Systems Protection Board.
Still, the final agreement is a lot kinder to VA officials than the original House bill, which would have allowed the VA secretary to immediately fire officials for poor performance, with no appeal.