VA Secretary Bob McDonald speaks to employees during a town hall meeting for VA employees in Washington, D.C.

VA Secretary Bob McDonald speaks to employees during a town hall meeting for VA employees in Washington, D.C. Robert Turtil/AP

House Passes Bill Allowing VA Secretary To Claw Back Bonuses

The measure gives the VA secretary yet another tool to punish employees committing misconduct.

The House on Monday passed legislation that would give the secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department authority to order employees to repay bonuses.

H.R. 280 would require notifying affected employees before they had to repay the money, and would give them an opportunity for a hearing conducted by the secretary. It would allow employees to request a hearing by a third party after the secretary’s decision. The legislation also includes a provision directing the secretary to publish regulations describing the bonus rescission process so that employees know their rights under the bill. H.R. 280 now heads to the Senate.

The idea behind the measure is to give the VA chief another tool to punish those engaged in misconduct – in this instance by allowing the department to revoke bonuses those employees have received. But the legislation does not specify criteria that would be grounds for ordering a repayment, giving the secretary broad discretion. The bill also is aimed at clearing up any confusion over whether VA has the authority to claw back bonuses.

“As we learned last Congress, behind nearly every VA scandal, there’s a bonus,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the bill’s sponsor. “Ideally, VA employees and executives who collected bonuses under false pretenses should be subject to prosecution when warranted, but at a minimum their bonuses should be paid back in full.”

Miller introduced similar legislation during the last Congress. A bipartisan group of senators unveiled a measure in July during the 113th Congress that specifically targeted bonuses given to VA employees found guilty of manipulating patient wait list data -- the action that sparked the start of a massive management overhaul last year at the department.

Last year, a USA Today report found that VA awarded $380,000 in bonuses to “directors and top executives” at 38 hospitals under investigation for falsifying records.

Then-VA secretary Eric Shinseki in May rescinded an $8,500 performance award given in 2013 to Sharon Helman, a bonus that the department said was awarded because of an administrative error. Federal employee advocates as well as department officials, however, have questioned whether the agency actually has the authority to rescind an employee bonus for malfeasance.

Helman, the former career senior executive who ran VA’s Phoenix health care system when the scandal over falsifying wait lists erupted last spring, was fired in November, and then appealed her case to the Merit Systems Protection Board. Chief Administrative Judge Stephen C. Mish in December upheld Helman’s firing because she improperly accepted more than $13,000 in gifts from a lobbyist and failed to report them, not because she engaged in misconduct related to manipulating data to conceal excessive wait times for vets seeking health care.

On Monday the House also passed H.R. 294, which would allow the VA until 2018 to transfer up to 900 eligible veterans unable to live independently to non-department run medical foster homes.