Veteran Education Benefits Increase, VA Bonuses Decrease

A bill that would expand veterans’ educational benefits and end bonuses for all of the senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs was unanimously passed in the House this last week. The bonuses which are due to be cut would be cut for five years.

Approved on Monday, February 3, the measure was introduced over a year ago by Rep. Jeff Miller, from Florida, and Rep. Mike Michaud, from Maine.  The two representatives head the House Veterans Affairs Committee when they created the bill. It would require all schools eligible for GI Bill benefits, regardless of where those individuals have actually established residence, to give veterans in-state tuition rates, saving the veteran thousands of dollars in tuition.  If, for any reason, the public university would not charge veterans in-state tuition rates, they would have to face a financial penalty.

Originally, Congress intended for the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan era to receive free schooling from a public school of their choice.  For the most part, it was successful.  But on occasion, as soon as the veteran returns to normal life, they move into a new state and find that the federal government’s reimbursement to colleges won’t fully cover the higher tuition rates that generally apply to students who come from out of state.

According to an analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the recently passed legislation has a projected savings of $18 million over the period when bonuses will be eliminated for VA executives.  The elimination of those bonuses is currently set to be during fiscal years 2014 through 2018.

On top of making all GI Bill benefits in-state tuition and taking away bonuses for leaders in the VA, the bill includes other provisions that would extend the VA’s work-study program through 2018 and increase the time frame for veterans to use their vocational rehabilitation benefits from 12 years to 17 years, among other measures.

The representative who led the House floor debate on the legislation, Rep. Mark Takano from California, said last Wednesday that the measure gives lawmakers a chance to help veterans transition out of their military lives.  In a statement Wednesday, he said, “Too often, our veterans have difficulty reintegrating back in civilian life, and Congress should be doing all that it can to make things easier for our heroes.”

Despite a longstanding backlog of disability claims, the VA has been known to and has taken fire for paying large bonuses to its senior officials. On top of that, a federal watchdog report said that the department awarded bonuses to most of its doctors and dentists despite lacking reasonable assurances that the extra pay was linked to performance.  In fact, one of the more well known instances of the VA awarding those who did not do their job was revealed in a CBS report last year.  In the report, it was revealed that the VA awarded $63,000 in performance pay to one of its regional directors shortly after a probe had determined that his medical centers had failed to prevent an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease.

While many agree that the right direction was to cut the bonuses for the VA’s senior staff, as was evidenced by a unanimous vote, the Senior Executives Association has warned of the consequences that could follow with the passing of this bill.  They warned that cutting the bonuses for VA’s top leaders could cause those employees to seek work in the private sector or with other agencies, in which they could potentially earn a higher salary and more money.  The Senior Executives Association’s president, Carol Bonosaro, said in a letter to Miller and Michaud last year that the federal government’s senior executives are by and large hard-working and effective managers who deserve their bonuses.

“To the extent that there are actual instances of senior executives engaging in misconduct or sub-par performance and still receiving awards, it is the rare exception rather than the norm,” Bonosaro said.  She also added that agencies can take action against those who abuse their positions or fail to meet certain expectations.

On Wednesday, the association released a statement saying the hold on bonuses “sends a negative message to VA senior executives that their work is not valued and that the pay-for-performance system is broken; further, it ties the hands of VA leadership, which would be severely limited in its ability to recognize stellar performance.


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