A Veterans Affairs official acknowledged the need to study the agency's approach to awarding bonuses to top executives. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
Department of Veterans Affairs officials had trouble explaining to a House committee Monday why department officials received awards and bonuses while hospitals they oversaw were the sites of infectious disease outbreaks and suicide deaths in recent years.
At one point during testimony before the House Veterans’ Affairs panel, the VA’s under secretary for health vacillated about whether he still would recommend a presidential award for the director of a VA region where five veterans died from an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in 2011 and 2012.
The under secretary, Robert Petzel, initially stood by recommending a Presidential Distinguished Rank Award — a top prize for a federal executive — for regional director Michael Moreland, arguing that the award was for a lifetime of work.
However, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., said the failure to stem or prevent an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease had led to an ongoing criminal probe and critical reports by the VA’s inspector general. After those points were made, Petzel said he could not say if the award was still warranted.
The VA later issued a statement saying its decision to nominate Moreland for the award is under review. In addition, cash bonuses for some senior VA health executives from 2012 have been deferred pending reconsideration, the VA says.
The department decided weeks ago not to hand out 2012 cash bonuses to executives running benefits operations after a backlog of compensation cases reached record levels earlier this year. That backlog has since been reduced.
Moreland was given the presidential award in April and also received a $63,000 bonus.
Moreland joined Petzel at the hearing in Pittsburgh, where the disease outbreak occurred. Moreland apologized for what happened at the VA hospital under his watch and acknowledged that “the timing of (the presidential award) was very bad.”
In addition to the five Legionnaire’s deaths in Pittsburgh, there were three suicides at an Atlanta VA hospital in recent years. Family members, many of them in tears, testified at the hearing about losing loved ones.
Petzel said the VA learned from mistakes in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, and problems of mismanagement at VA hospitals in Dallas, Buffalo, and Jackson, Miss. He also asserted that what happened at those facilities was not a systemic problem for a veterans health care system that serves 6.3 million people.
He expressed condolences for the deaths that occurred.
“VA works diligently to identify and hold people responsible,” Petzel said. “We can and we must do better. This is not a perfect system and there are many things that need to be improved.”
He also said that process of awarding cash bonuses, which came under fire in a Government Accountability Office report last month, is under review. He said the bonuses are necessary for attracting and retaining talented employees.
Employees have been punished for the problems at the five hospitals, Petzel said, although he could not discuss personnel action. He said he gave the committee a list of those actions.
Rep. Jeff Miller, the committee chairman and a Republican from Florida, said he received the list Sunday and he didn’t believe the discipline “does in fact hold individuals accountable.”
Zoroya writes for USA Today.