(AZ Central) -- Newly released records show the Phoenix VA Health Care System paid out roughly $10 million in bonuses during the past three years, when some staff manipulated patient wait-time records to trigger bonuses as veterans died awaiting care.
The Arizona Republic, after asking for bonus records at least 10 times since March, obtained the data Friday from the Department of Veteran Affairs under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Bonus payouts increased significantly under Sharon Helman, who became director of the Phoenix VA in February 2012. She was placed on administrative leave last month with two other top staff members amid accusations of mismanagement stemming from the bonus scandal. Helman could not be reached, but previously has said she was unaware of fraudulent record-keeping or patient deaths caused by delays.
Records show 4,188 bonuses were paid over the past three fiscal years to more than 2,150 employees, including doctors, nurses, administrators, secretaries and cleaners. Nearly 650 VA employees received a bonus in each of the three years. The VA has about 2,500 employees.
The bonus totals increased from $2.5 million in 2011, to $3.5 million in 2012 and $3.9 million in 2013. The figures obtained by The Republic are much larger than figures recently posted online by two watchdog groups.
"The VA employee recognition and awards program provides an entire range of rewards to recognize employees who make contributions that support goals and objectives across the facility," said Jean Schaefer, a Phoenix VA spokeswoman.
Roughly half of the Phoenix bonus payments went to doctors as part of a "physician performance pay" program.
The VA has trouble retaining doctors because pay is lower than in the private sector. But the VA can increase their pay with bonuses for exceeding goals based on productivity, quality, research and education, efficiency/access and patient/staff satisfaction. The highest physician performance pay last year was $15,000. Doctors also can receive merit bonuses in a pool available to the rest of the staff.
The issue of bonuses being paid to VA staff while veterans were denied care has infuriated the public and members of Congress, who are trying to suspend the practice. The House Veterans' Affairs Committee on Friday plans a hearing on how bonuses are awarded to senior VA executives.
"(The) VA's sordid bonus culture is a symptom of a much bigger organizational problem: The department's extreme reluctance to hold employees and executives accountable for mismanagement that harms veterans," said House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla.
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., a member of Miller's committee, was surprised bonuses had increased at the Phoenix VA.
"Awarding bonuses to anyone who knew about misleading data and hidden lists is infuriating. The VA should fire those who knowingly participated in corruption, and it should overhaul its appointment scheduling system so that veterans, not financial rewards, are the priority," she said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has pushed for VA reform, also was dismayed.
"It is highly disturbing that while patient care suffered, bonus pay skyrocketed. This must be the subject of a full investigation — in addition to the FBI investigation that is ongoing — and serves as another example of the systemic, cultural problem at the VA that must be addressed," McCain said.
Bonus records for fiscal years ended Sept. 30, 2011, 2012 and 2013 show:
• Helman, whose salary was $169,879, received a $9,345 bonus in fiscal 2013, and about $1,000 to cover taxes she paid on her Phoenix relocation allowance. An $8,495 bonus awarded in February was rescinded.
• Helman's secretary, Karen Craig, received a $5,500 bonus last year on top of her $55,513 salary. It was the fourth-largest staff bonus for someone who was not a doctor. Craig received bonuses of $1,202 and $800 the prior two fiscal years.Her recent bonus was $2,650 more than any other secretary's during any of the past three years. Craig could not be reached.
• Associate Director Lance Robinson and Health Administration Services Director Brad Curry, who, with Helman, were put on leave May 1 after misconduct at the VA surfaced, both received $3,000 bonuses in fiscal 2013.
• Some job categories were rewarded with large bonuses, including dieticians and nutritionists. Five received bonuses in excess of $10,000 in 2012 and 2013. The bonuses ranged from 9 to 30 percent of the dieticians' other pay for the year.
• Bonuses were given out to lower-paid employees as well. Fifteen custodians received bonuses of more than 6 percent of their pay in one of the past three years, as did more than a dozen clerks and assistants and 10 employees who work in medical support assistance.
VA employees are reviewed annually and given one of five performance ratings: unacceptable, minimally satisfactory, fully successful, excellent or outstanding. If an employee is rated fully successful or higher, the person is eligible for a bonus.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has ordered an end to bonuses for senior VA executives and has suspended extra performance pay for other employees. The U.S. House, as part of a VA overhaul bill, voted to suspend all VA bonuses through 2016. Miller has said suspending all bonuses within the VA would save $400 million annually.
The Republic in March sought numerous records from the VA amid allegations by whistle-blowers that patient wait times were being manipulated to trigger bonuses. Since then, the VA's Office of Inspector General confirmed those allegations and found employees at the Phoenix VA and facilities nationwide altered patient wait records so they could meet performance goals tied to bonuses.
Data released earlier by the VA showed VA medical centers nationwide misrepresented or side-tracked medical scheduling for more than 57,000 former military personnel. About 64,000 veterans were not even on the VA's electronic appointment waiting list.
In Arizona, there were 1,715 veterans in the Phoenix VA and 1,115 in the Northern Arizona VA Health Care System in Prescott waiting for initial appointments for 90 days or more. In addition 1,075 in Phoenix and 139 in Prescott were not on any scheduled waiting list for a first appointment, according to VA data.