WASHINGTON — Nearly 80 percent of senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs got performance bonuses last year despite widespread treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals and clinics, a top official said Friday.
More than 350 VA executives were paid a total of $2.7 million in bonuses last year, said Gina Farrisee, assistant VA secretary for human resources and administration. That amount is down from about $3.4 million in bonuses paid in 2012, Farrisee said.
Farrisee defended the bonus system, telling the House Veterans Affairs Committee that the VA needs to pay bonuses to keep executives, who are paid up to $181,000 per year.
‘‘We are competing in tough labor markets for skilled personnel,’’ Farrisee said. ‘‘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.’’
Farrisee’s testimony drew sharp rebukes by lawmakers from both parties.
Representative Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican who chairs of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the VA’s bonus system ‘‘is failing veterans.’’
Instead of being given for outstanding work, the cash awards are ‘‘seen as an entitlement and have become irrelevant to quality work product,’’ Miller said.
Representative Phil Roe, a Tennessee Republican, said awarding bonuses to 80 percent of executives means that the VA was setting the bar for performance so low that ‘‘anybody could step over it. If your metrics are low enough that almost everybody exceeds them, then your metrics are not very high.’’
Representative Ann McLane Kuster, a New Hampshire Democrat, said the VA suffered from ‘‘grade inflation, or what [humorist] Garrison Keillor would refer to as ‘all of the children are above average.’ ”
Kuster and others said they found it hard to believe that 80 percent of senior employees could be viewed as exceeding expectations, given the uproar about patients dying while awaiting VA treatment and evidence that workers falsified or omitted appointment schedules to mask frequent, long delays. The resulting election-year firestorm forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.