Editorial: Veterans have earned right to fair treatment

In this Aug. 20, 2010 photo, veterans Gerald Shepard, left, Moe Giroux, center, and Rodney Meyers, all of Colchester, Vt. are seen in Essex Junction, Vt. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is urging Vermont veterans to see if they are eligible for health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Sanders, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, says there have been great improvements in the system in recent years, both in Vermont and nationally. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

In this Aug. 20, 2010 photo, veterans Gerald Shepard, left, Moe Giroux, center, and Rodney Meyers, all of Colchester, Vt. are seen in Essex Junction, Vt. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is urging Vermont veterans to see if they are eligible for health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Sanders, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, says there have been great improvements in the system in recent years, both in Vermont and nationally. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

Last week was a lousy week for those charged with supporting America’s veterans.

First, a Washington, D.C., television station revealed that while veterans were waiting longer than ever to receive the wartime disability pay they have earned, the Department of Veterans Affairs doled out millions of dollars in performance bonuses to department employees.

Then, the Government Accountability Office released a study that showed bonuses also were routinely paid to doctors and dentists without any assurances that the extra pay was linked to performance. Some even had actions taken against them related to their clinical performance.

We and many others have reported that the VA has simply not done an adequate job of taking care of veterans’ needs. Individually these new reports were troubling, but taken collectively and in context they were damning and bespeak an agency in need of systemic overhaul. Clearly, serious corrective action is needed.

To be fair, since Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary of benefits, made public promises in April, things have improved. In June, the Veterans Benefits Administration processed a record 110,000 claims. But that momentum must be sustained.

The GAO report revealed that in 2011 about 80 percent of the 22,500 Veterans Health Administration employees received bonuses totaling $150 million.

The report also says VA policy does not specify the purpose of the bonuses. That sounds to us like a dandy place to begin.

VA policy must specifically articulate the purpose behind bonus awards.

Meanwhile, salary data collected from the Office of Personnel Management by the television station revealed that, also in 2011, as the claims backlog ballooned by 155 percent, more than two-thirds of claims processors shared in bonuses.

In essence, many of the processors apparently gamed a poorly designed system by setting aside complex cases in favor of simple ones so as to pump up their individual numbers and receive bonus pay. It is those complex cases, of course, that make up much of the offensive backlog pending for more than 125 days.

The report revealed that the standards for awarding bonus pay differed wildly among the various regional offices. The Oakland, Calif., office, which was forced to shut its doors to retrain underperforming employees, awarded nine out of every 10 workers bonuses in 2012. However, in the Sioux Falls, S.D., office — where workers processed claims four times as fast as those in Oakland — less than 10 percent received extra pay last year.

For its part, Congress must keep the pressure on. Military veterans should not be treated as second-class citizens. They have earned the benefits and the right to prompt action on any claim.

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