The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs office in Baltimore — under fire for being one of the worst-performing in the country — gave out a total of $64,000 in bonuses to its employees over the past three years, agency records show.
The bonuses, awarded to dozens of employees, drew criticism from veterans' advocates who have been frustrated with the office's error rate and backlog of disability claims. In recent years, for example, the percentage of backlogged disability claims for Maryland veterans outpaced the national average by double digits.
Darin Selnick, who helped organize the Concerned Veterans for America, said that given the VA's track record with processing times and errors, "why anybody would get a bonus is amazing."
"The average veteran doesn't care how they get it done, they just want it done," Selnick said. "And the average veteran waiting is just horrified that they're getting bonuses when the numbers are going the wrong way."
The VA said that workers at the Baltimore office received bonuses as recognition for exceptional individual performances and that the financial incentives were not offered as a "blanket award."
While regional offices have been "challenged to meet an expected level of performance," VA spokesman Terry Jemison said, "it is important to continue recognizing individual employees that achieve an exceptional level of performance."
He said regional offices "are encouraged to use this awards funding as a means to reward employees who have exceeded their target level of performance or made a special contribution to achieving the mission of the regional office, and are not intended to be used as a blanket award for all regional office employees."
The VA provided $16,700 in bonuses in federal fiscal year 2012, $20,500 in 2011 and $26,800 in bonuses in 2010, according to information provided to The Baltimore Sun in response to a Public Information Act request. In 2012, 19 employees received an average of $880.
Meanwhile, the number of backlogged cases at the Baltimore office grew significantly — from 6,100 in September 2010 to 15,600 in September 2012. Over that period, the percentage of backlogged cases jumped from 57.4 percent to 81.9 percent, compared with the U.S. average of 37.2 percent to 67.6 percent, respectively.
Claims for Maryland veterans take an average of 581 days to complete, and only the Los Angeles office takes longer, at 584 days. The national average is about 378 days.
The regional offices countrywide saw a surge in claims as veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq sought benefits for their injuries. The agency had also authorized access to benefits for medical conditions related to combat post-traumatic stress disorder, Gulf War Illness and exposure to Agent Orange.
The VA notes recent progress at the Baltimore office. Since March, claims for more than 13,000 Maryland veterans have been processed.
To draw down the number of pending claims at the troubled Baltimore office and process them more quickly, the VA transferred a portion of the local cases to other regional offices. Jemison said the agency has "utilized an aggressive brokering strategy to assist the Baltimore regional office."
As of this week, more than 7,500 cases, or 77.2 percent, are backlogged in the Baltimore office. Another 2,322 claims filed by Maryland veterans are pending at other regional offices.
A case is considered part of the backlog after it has been pending for 125 days.
Jemison said, "This high volume of brokering work to other offices has resulted in a dramatic reduction" in outstanding Baltimore claims. Of the cases completed in the past six months, Jemison said, about 9,400 were completed by other offices and 3,700 in Baltimore.
But critics say that shuffling the cases to other offices manipulates the numbers to show an illusion of progress when problems are just transferred to other parts of the country.
Joe Moore, a partner at the Bethesda-based law firm Bergmann & Moore, said the brokering strategy the VA has used in Baltimore and elsewhere isn't a solution to the systemic problems at the agency. He said transferring cases pushes those on appeal — which can take years to resolve — even further to the bottom of the stack.
"They are playing a shell game," Moore said. "What work isn't being done at another regional office because they are working on these cases from Baltimore? There are veterans who are dying waiting for their appeals."
"They're shuffling papers on their desk. Real veterans are losing their homes. Real veterans are dying."
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.
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