WASHINGTON - Major changes are happening at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in the wake of a Channel 2 Action News investigation.
Channel 2's Scott MacFarlane broke the story last week of executives at the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur pocketing big salary bonuses even amid complaints of mismanagement inside the building.
MacFarlane learned late Monday that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is cancelling some executive bonus pay for 2013.
Many of the top brass in the department will have to get by on their six-figure salaries alone, no bonuses.
Executives who work in the Veterans Benefits Administration are the ones being cut off. Those are the execs who are in charge of ensuring local veterans get all the benefits they are due.
The VA said it will instead funnel the bonus money into reducing the long backlog of benefits claims so many of those local veterans are facing.
MacFarlane's investigation found the VA handed out $2.7 million in bonus pay to top-level executives in 2011, including tens of thousands of dollars to top officials in Decatur in the past couple of years.
Records show former Atlanta VA Medical Center Director James Clark pocketed a $13,000 bonus in 2011 and another $17,000 worth of salary bonuses in 2010.
MacFarlane's investigation found Charles Sepich, head of the VA's Southeast Network, was given a $13,000 bonus even before his arrival in Georgia.
A former regional director, Lawrence Biro, received $18,000 in bonuses.
Those executives received those bonuses despite findings that the Atlanta VA management botched how it handled high-risk patients during roughly the same time period.
An audit showed two Atlanta veterans showing suicidal tendencies sought help, got lost in red tape and then killed themselves.
It's also about the same time another person with a history of substance abuse was overlooked, overdosed and died.
The report said a mental health patient managed to roam free in the building for hours and injected testosterone around the same time as well.
MacFarlane's investigation triggered a flood of emails and tweets across the country. The moratorium on executive bonuses would impact only officials in the Veterans Benefits Administration offices of the VA, and not necessarily affect veterans’ hospital managers.
"While I commend the VA for taking steps to eliminate the backlog and eliminating bonuses for executives, these policies should have been implemented long ago. More reforms are needed, such as eliminating the practice of official time and implementing audit recommendations. At a time when so many soldiers are returning from war, and in light of the recent deaths in Atlanta, the VA must prioritize veterans’ health and well-being above all else," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Georgia, in a an email statement to MacFarlane.
Rep. Jeff Miller, the chairman of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee, which oversees the VA, said he's also considering formal hearings to investigate what's been happening in Decatur.
“It’s about time VA stopped rewarding employees and managers for falling behind. One can only wonder what effect this sort of policy may have had if VA had instituted it years ago,” Miller told MacFarlane.