Despite a scathing report of the Columbia Regional Veteran's Affairs Office, hundreds of employees learned they will soon be getting bonuses.
Last Friday, 360 employees at the Regional Office were notified they were getting a $400 quality I-Care award.
The regional office actually has a large budget for employee awards -- close to $250,000 a year. But none of that money, thanks to Congress, is allowed to go to directors; it must go to line employees. The employees who received that bonus work in the national call center, vocational rehab, and, of course, the disability claims center.
Michael Robinson was one of the employees who received the bonus.
"I serve veterans," said Robinson. "I also go out and do outreach to Broad River Prison or any prison in South Carolina. I also go down to the homeless shelter and see veterans there."
Leanne Weldin, director of the Regional Office, said those bonuses only went to deserving employees.
"Those employees who achieve a 95 percent exceptional quality in their reports in the treatment of veterans, they deserve to be thanked," said Weldin.
Attorney and veteran Thomas Eppink, however, disagrees with the bonuses.
"That's my federal government, giving money away for nothing," said Eppink. "If you look at the salaries to start with, these people at the phone centers, these G9's, they're making $50,000 a year. How much of a bonus do they need?"
Eppink says he nor the veterans he represents, have seen enough improvement with the office to justify the bonuses.
"They're just throwing out a number and saying, 'We're doing a 99.6 percent average,' and I'm going, 'Nobody does that well! Especially not the federal government,'" said Eppink.
A report by the Inspector General says roughly 40 percent of the disability claims processed at the Regional Office were done incorrectly. But VA leaders say they disagree with those findings.
"Our quality is between 90 to 97-percent based on external quality reviews that are done every month," said Weldin. "Not based on the 89 cases, a very small case load, that the OIG looked at."
The Inspector General's report also indicated poor training resulted in incorrect monthly payments to veterans. Those findings were the result of an onsite visit in March. VA regional leaders, however, say the OIG's report has very similar criticism for each regional office, and the evaluation does not accurately capture the progress the agency has made.
VA leaders say they're making improvements suggested in the federal review, including working to lower the average wait time for benefit review claims, which is currently at 154 days.
"I don't see a lot of new problems, I see a continuation of a lot of old, old problems," said Eppink. "Same old percentages I've been looking at for years."
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