I-Team: Veterans' Affairs defends Fayetteville director's bonus amid congressional scrutiny

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Among those in question is Elizabeth Goolsby, the director of the Fayetteville VAMC, who received $6,912 for her performance in 2013. (WTVD)

A new report released by the House Veterans' Affairs Committee outlines hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses awarded to the senior leadership of troubled VA facilities.

The report, released June 27, shows 292 executives were rewarded for 2013 performances, and paid bonuses in February of this year. It was a part of a larger $2.7 million dollar rewards package to senior VA leadership in a now-defunct incentive program.

Nearly $400,000 were distributed to leaders of VA facilities currently under investigation for ill or under-performing facilities, and accused of altering appointment records to make wait times appear better than reality.

Wait times make up a portion of the performance factors evaluated to issue the incentives.

Among those in question is Elizabeth Goolsby, the director of the Fayetteville VAMC, who received $6,912 for her performance in 2013. Goolsby's center topped a list of worst wait times in a recent VA audit, noting a quarter of patients wait longer than a month for primary care.

Congressman Jeff Miller, R-FL., who also chairs the Veterans' Affairs Committee, has called on Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson to rescind the bonuses where possible, noting it can be done within a year of the money being issued. In part of a statement, Miller slams the bonus issuance.

"Until department leaders take steps to ensure VA employees and executives are adequately punished rather than rewarded for corruption and substandard care, it is simply illogical to think the pattern of preventable deaths and patient safety incidents at VA medical centers across the country will subside."

"This is not new," said David Russotto, a North Carolina attorney and veteran, specializing in veterans' disability claims. "This has been going on for possibly decades and is coming into the public light right now."

Russotto said what started out as a way to create the win-win for veterans and VA leadership has turned into an easy way for VA executives to start "gaming" the system through receiving incentives, and failing to deliver results.

"If it had happened in any other area, whether it be banking or law or anything, folks that obtain a benefit bonus, a salary bonus - whatever it is under false pretenses - would probably be more than fired. There would probably be criminal charges."

Gibson fired back at a reporter during a recent visit to the Fayetteville VA when he was asked whether bonuses should be done away with, amid the VA's growing problems. Gibson took responsibility for the issues, but refused to lay them on all the system's employees.

"This idea that 'let's fire everybody, let's pull everybody's bonus away,' that's a bunch of crap," Gibson said during the visit.

Russotto, a former NAVY JAG officer, agreed.

"This is a relatively small group [involved]," he said. "I mean it might be in the several thousands of people that participated in this at that level, but even one is too many."

In a statement responding to the report Senator Kay Hagan, D-NC, reminded she has given the VA Secretary "authority to fire any senior officials engaged in such activity" by co-sponsoring the Veterans' Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014.

Goolsby's bonus is defended in a statement from the system's Mid-Atlantic Communications Director Bruce Sprecher who notes the nearly $7,000 was awarded based on 30 factors, and he highlights Goolsby's work in the area of access since her 2010 arrival. It points new care sites that have opened in Fayetteville, Robeson and Brunswick counties and Goldsboro.

"Since her arrival, the Fayetteville VA enterprise (covering 21 counties) has experienced a net gain of more than 15,000 new veterans," reads the statement. "Meeting access demands has been a challenge that Ms. Goolsby has worked by pursing every available opportunity."

"She has put forth unmatched effort into improving access and into the delivery of quality health care to veterans throughout eastern North Carolina."

The statement makes no mention of the wait times aspect, or the report's suggestion that the awards may have been based on false record-keeping.

Sprecher notes that quality of access is directly related to wait times, and Goolsby oversees the third largest veteran population in the nation.

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