$6.5 million in bonuses go to Ohio VA employees

Nearly $6.5 million in bonuses went to more than 6,000 employees of Veterans Affairs hospitals in Ohio the same year allegations of lengthy wait times hidden by scheming bureaucrats toppled the agency’s top brass, an I-Team investigation has found.

One Dayton VA doctor received bonuses in 2013 and 2014 after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs paid out $300,000 to settle a malpractice claim naming her.

The I-Team obtained a database this month of salaries and bonuses paid to VA employees across Ohio after filing a Freedom of Information Act request for the records in July.

Bonus payouts at Ohio’s five VA hospitals dropped from nearly $7.7 million in 2013 to $6.5 million in federal fiscal year 2014, which ended Oct. 1. The average bonus in 2014 was $700. There were 20 for more than $5,000, many going to top administrators.

“That is misappropriated funds, that’s what that’s called in the military,” said Taraneice Nalls, a retired Army staff sergeant living in Dayton.

Nalls said her faulty adrenal glands went undiagnosed for years and her doctor didn’t tell her for 13 months she had a referral for further testing that ultimately discovered the problem.

“They don’t deserve that,” she said when told her doctor and others — more than half of the roughly 12,000 VA employees in the state — received bonuses.

Law sets limits

Federal reforms passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama after a summer of outrage over how long veterans were waiting for care have limited the budget for VA bonuses to $360 million — a $40 million reduction.

U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Cincinnati, was among lawmakers who believed bonuses for senior agency executives should’ve been suspended altogether.

“(Bonuses) should be given to employees who go beyond their job descriptions and not to those who simply do their job, or worse, underperform,” said Wenstrup, who is a physican and sits on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“In numerous VA hearings, we continually found evidence that bonuses for many VA employees did not align with quality performance or, more importantly, with providing patient access to quality care,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, sits on the Senate veterans affairs committee. He said limits to bonuses must be balanced against paying enough to attract high-quality employees.

“Our veterans deserve the highest level of care possible,” he said. “Recruiting and retaining skilled medical and administrative professionals, in the current national healthcare provider shortage, is a difficult challenge.”

Navy veteran Denny Brown of Logan County said doctors at the Dayton VA cured his cancer and deserve every cent they get.

“I haven’t had a bad experience with the VA,” he said.

Brown said he reads the newspaper and knows the VA has challenges. But he said it should fix problems by firing bad actors, rewarding whistleblowers and fairly compensating the doctors who are doing good work.

VA officials on the national stage say they’re doing just that.

Last week, the VA used new powers given to the agency to fire four senior executives. They included the director of the Pittsburgh VA Healthcare System and the Central Alabama Healthcare System, both of whom received bonuses in recent years.

Biggest payouts

Top administrators received the largest bonuses in Ohio last year, according to records obtained by the I-Team. Jack Hetrick, director of the VA in Ohio, received the largest bonus: $12,579. That was on top of his $181,497 salary.

Dayton VA Director Glenn Costie received two bonuses totaling $12,110. That was the third highest amount in the state and was in addition to his salary of $174,730. Cincinnati VA Director Linda Smith received a $8,985 bonus; her annual salary is $181,497.

Meanwhile, the VA Office of Inspector General is investigating the Cincinnati VA after a whistleblower alleged manipulation of scheduling patients. And the Richmond (Ind.) Community Based Outpatient Clinic, which falls under the Dayton VA, is under OIG review after staff reported inconsistencies in understanding how to handle long wait times.

“Our ‘bonuses’ are in fact ‘pay-for-performance’ awards, measuring whether an employee achieved specific goals which were established at the beginning of the year,” VA spokesman Ted Froats said in a statement. “If an employee achieves all of their goals, they receive all of the pay-for-performance award. If they only achieve a percentage of the goals, then they receive that percentage of the award.”

The Richmond clinic has 32 employees and is overseen by William Germann, Dayton’s chief of primary care. He received a $3,000 bonus in 2014 and $2,999 in 2013. His salary is $207,610.

Froats said Germann has increased training for schedulers in Richmond as a result of the recent audit.

Bonus after lawsuit

In January 2013, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs paid out $300,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by James Baker of Sidney. He alleged poor care he received at the Dayton VA put him on a waiting list for a new kidney.

Baker went to the Dayton VA in 2007 for a routine appointment, but his normal doctor was out and primary care physician Yolanda Yap was filling in. The lawsuit alleges Yap put him on a new medication without warning him that it might have an adverse reaction with the medication he was already taking. He went to the emergency room in 2008, the federal lawsuit says, and doctors found his kidneys had failed.

Baker filed an administrative malpractice claim in 2010, which the VA denied in 2011. He sued for $4 million in 2011 and the VA settled in 2013.

Baker currently is hospitalized at the VA undergoing cancer treatment and his family declined to comment for this story.

Yap received a $1,300 bonus in 2013 and $1,100 in 2014, on top of her $172,439 salary.

Froats said the claim was in regard to a patient visit that occurred in 2007, so it was not a factor in Yap’s 2013 or 2014 performance reviews.

“Dr. Yap maintains full priveleges and has always been a highly respected clinician at the Dayton VAMC,” he said.

Other malpractice payouts — including six Ohio cases settled in court totaling $2.6 million since 2013 — often did not include the names of the people accused of the mistakes, so it’s impossible to know whether they received bonuses.

Bob Funk, quartermaster for the Ohio VFW, said it’s too early to know whether VA administrators in Ohio share blame for the ongoing wait-times scandals, and he doesn’t want to rush to judgment about the doctors sued for malpractice.

But, he said, “They shouldn’t get a bonus if they’re not doing their job.”

“There’s a laundry list of things the VA doesn’t do correctly,” he said. “These are things the VA needs to get cleaned up and hopefully the new administrators (in Washington) that are coming in will take a hard look at that.”

Doctors’ pay

Bonus amounts are based on a person’s salary and are supposed to reward good work. But a U.S. Government Accountability Office report in July 2013 showed performance bonuses were routinely handed out to employees the same year they were disciplined.

Some VA critics alleged the bonuses provided incentives for employees to fudge wait times to make it look like they were meeting requirements that veterans get appointments within 14 days of their requested date.

Allegations that VA officials were hiding how long veterans were waiting for care led VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign on May 30. He was replaced by Robert McDonald, former CEO of Procter & Gamble.

Nearly 92 percent of appointments at the Dayton VA and 91 percent at the Cincinnati VA are scheduled within a 30-day window, according to the most recent data released in September. The national average is 90 percent.

Dayton VA officials say they are addressing patient wait times by hiring more doctors to handle the increasing caseload. Five new doctors will be arriving at the Dayton VA within the next four months, with another provider going to the Lima clinic. Additional positions are in the pipeline, including a physican recruiter.

VA officials say they are challenged by a national shortage of primary care physicans, which makes it difficult for the government to compete with the private sector for top talent.

The I-Team compared salary data to a Dayton VA staff list and found five family practice doctors with an average salary of $180,670. In the past year, the average starting salary for private-sector family practice doctors in Ohio was $189,000, with a high of $220,000 and a low of $160,000, according to the healthcare staffing firm Merritt Hawkins.

‘About the veterans’

The highest-paid employees in the VA system are orthopedic surgeons. Glenn Wera, section chief for orthopedics at the Louis Stokes VA Center in Cleveland, has the highest base salary in the state at $374,311. The highest-paid employee at the Dayton VA is Matthew Lawless, an orthopedic surgeon with a salary of $330,727.

That pales in comparison to the private sector, according to VA officials who point to the 2013 Sullivan and Cotter Physicians Compensation Survey, which shows the average non-VA chief orthopedic surgeon in Dayton makes $592,630 annually.

Army veteran Les Miller said he ended a several-months stay at the Dayton VA in April when he had surgery to remove his spleen. He said the front-line doctors and nurses deserve bonuses and top pay for dealing with the short-staffed and disorganized situation created by administrators.

“The front-line workers did what they were supposed to do, and more,” he said. “As far as the administration goes, they need to step their program up.

“When you hire on for those jobs, it should be more about the veterans and not the money.”

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