Backlog, shmacklog: Veterans Affairs employees receive bonuses for "excellent" performance

Last spring, Department of Veterans Affairs announced that they planned to withhold the usual yearly round of bonuses for the senior officials that oversee veterans’ disability claims, pointing to both the uptick in the number of claims of the past few years as well as failures in meeting performance goals as impediments the department needs to better manage. The savings, a spokesman vaguely assured us at the time, said that the savings would be used to help reduce the running backlog and help them achieve its elimination by 2015. Just the other day, VA Secretary assured the press that the department is committed to that goal, and again defined the parameters as being able to process all claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy.


Ahem. They might want to reexamine their methodologies. Via WaPo:

While veterans waited longer than ever in recent years for their wartime disability compensation, the Department of Veterans Affairs gave its workers millions of dollars in bonuses for “excellent” performances that effectively encouraged them to avoid claims that needed extra work to document veterans’ injuries, a News21 investigation has found.

In 2011, a year in which the claims backlog ballooned by 155 percent, more than two-thirds of claims processors shared $5.5 million in bonuses, according to salary data from the Office of Personnel Management.

The more complex claims were often set aside by workers so they could keep their jobs, meet performance standards or, in some cases, collect extra pay, said VA claims processors and union representatives. Those claims now make up much of the VA’s widely scrutinized disability claims backlog, defined by the agency as claims pending more than 125 days.

“At the beginning of the month . . . I’d try to work my really easy stuff so I could get my numbers up,” said Renee Cotter, a union steward for the Reno, Nev., local of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

Now, claims workers said, they fear the VA’s aggressive new push to finish all one-year-old claims by Oct. 1 — and eliminate the entire backlog by 2015 — could continue the emphasis on quantity over quality in claims processing that has often led to mistakes.


I would love to believe that these bonuses were handed out on the basis of merit to those who really went above and beyond the call of duty and are really acting as a useful incentivizing tool for the department, but this is one of the biggest problems with our gigantic monster of a federal bureaucracy: Painfully slow to innovate, especially prone to inertia, and often hostile to competitive efficiencies found in the private sector. Maybe these employees did go above their performance standards, but there is clearly a problem with the performance standards themselves if they reward workers for prioritizing easy cases and throwing more difficult ones on the back-burner. That sounds an awful lot like a breeding ground for inefficiency, and it’s hardly going to help with getting all claims taken care of within the 125-day limit, is it?

Also, there’s this, via NBC:

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense spent at least $1.3 billion during the last four years trying unsuccessfully to develop a single electronic health-records system between the two departments — leaving veterans’ disability claims piling up in paper files, a News21 investigation shows. …

For a veteran in the disability claims process, these records are critical: They include DOD service and health records needed by the VA to decide veterans’ disability ratings and the compensation they will receive for their injuries.

Although Congress repeatedly has demanded an “integrated” and “interoperable” electronic health-records system, neither the DOD nor the VA is able to completely access the other’s electronic records. Meanwhile, each has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on upgrades to its information technology and on attempts to improve interoperability between their systems.

At a July congressional hearing, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said he was disappointed and frustrated.  “The only thing interoperable we get are the litany of excuses flying across both departments every year as to why it has taken so long to get this done,” said Miller, the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.


Get it together, people.

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