NM VA leaders got bonuses amid complaints

VA Hospital

ALBUQUERQUE (AP) – Five top administrators in the Veterans Affairs’ health care system in New Mexico received more than $24,000 in bonuses in 2013 despite complaints from veterans about lapses and delays in care.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information request show the director of the New Mexico system collected more than $8,700 in 2013. Nearly 100 other employees – from emergency-room doctors to surgeons – shared more than $2.4 million in performance pay last year.

Bonuses for VA senior executives and administrators nationwide have been a point of contention since investigators following up on whistleblower complaints discovered large-scale improprieties in the way hospitals and clinics around the country scheduled veterans for appointments.

Tens of thousands of patients, including veterans in New Mexico, waited months to see a doctor.

While administrators in New Mexico have been able to whittle down the waiting list for some patients, there will be no extra pay this year for senior executives as the embattled VA works on reform. A national directive issued by the agency’s leadership has frozen bonuses.

Still, physicians will be able to earn up to $15,000 in performance pay, New Mexico VA spokeswoman Sonja Brown said. For example, doctors can earn bonuses for improving care or developing systems that would allow for better access and coordination between different clinics.

“Being able to provide this pay to our physicians helps us to be more competitive when recruiting physicians and helps to retain physicians,” Brown said.

A wide-ranging national audit released earlier this year showed more than 1,000 veterans had been waiting three months or more for initial medical appointments within the New Mexico system. Administrators blamed the backlog on a lack of primary care physicians.

At the time, New Mexico officials acknowledged that close to 3,000 patients were assigned to a doctor who didn’t actually see them and was available only by phone.

Officials said last week they are still trying to recruit more staff members.

The most recent audit of Albuquerque’s Veterans Affairs hospital shows there were 150 veterans on the electronic waiting list as of Sept. 18. That’s slightly more than in August. The increase stems from demand for appointments to address hearing issues.

The VA hospital in Albuquerque will be installing two new audiology booths, and veterans are being scheduled for weekend appointments to decrease the wait times, Brown said. An audiology provider was also added to the network last week, so veterans will have access to more locations where they can get care, she said.

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