Moore said dedicated VA employees do deserve bonuses, but the agency still must improve training, hire more staff and demand accountability from its leaders.

"Even in the very worst regional office, there are really good employees," Moore said. "It takes even more when there is someone who fights against the tide."

Selnick, of the Concerned Veterans for America and an Air Force veteran, said that in his experience at the VA as an appointee of President George W. Bush, bonuses were awarded too subjectively. He said they should be more closely aligned with performance measures, such as an office's ability to process pending cases.

Bonuses can be a constructive tool to spur changes, but the VA is misusing the financial rewards for workers by not drawing a stronger correlation to output, said Selnick, who held several positions at the VA, including special assistant to the secretary, from 2001 to 2009. An outside commission should evaluate VA performance, he said.

"If they're not incentivizing the right things, they're not going to be doing the right things," Selnick said. "You need to think in terms of what's going to drive the numbers.

"Fix it. Reform it. Make it work for everyone."

Maryland's congressional delegation, spearheaded by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, has demanded that the agency provide employees in the Baltimore office additional training and called on VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki to personally oversee its recovery.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, both Maryland Democrats, said they are tracking improvement efforts in Baltimore.

"Our paramount goal must be to ensure that veterans receive the benefits to which they are entitled and are not subjected to undue delays," Cummings said in a statement.

Bonuses awarded

The Baltimore office of the Department of Veterans Affairs awarded bonuses to employees during the past three federal fiscal years:

2010: 44 employees received an average of $610 for a total of about $26,800

2011: 26 employees received an average of $792 for a total of about $20,500

2012: 19 employees received an average of $880, for a total of about $16,700