WASHINGTON -- Nearly 80 percent of senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs got performance bonuses last year despite widespread treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals and clinics, a top official said Friday.

More than 350 VA executives were paid a total of $2.7 million in bonuses last year, said Gina Farrisee, assistant VA secretary for human resources and administration. That amount is down from about $3.4 million in bonuses paid in 2012, Farrisee said.

The totals do not include tens of millions of dollars in bonuses awarded to doctors, dentists and other medical providers throughout the VA's nearly 900 hospitals and clinics.

Workers at the Phoenix VA Health Care System -- where officials have confirmed dozens of patients died while awaiting treatment -- received about $3.9 million in bonuses last year, newly released records show. The merit-based bonuses were doled out to about 650 employees, including doctors, nurses, administrators, secretaries and cleaning staff.

Farrisee defended the bonus system, telling the House Veterans Affairs Committee the VA needs to pay bonuses to keep executives who are paid up to $181,000 per year.

"We are competing in tough labor markets for skilled personnel," Farrisee said Friday. "To remain competitive in recruiting and retaining the best personnel to serve our veterans, we must rely on tools such as incentives and awards that recognize superior performance."


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Farrisee's testimony drew sharp rebukes by lawmakers from both parties.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said awarding bonuses to 80 percent of executives means that the VA was setting the bar for performance so low that "anybody could step over it. If your metrics are low enough that almost everybody exceeds them, then your metrics are not very high."

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., said the VA suffered from "grade inflation, or what (humorist) Garrison Keillor would refer to as 'all of the children are above average.'"

Kuster and other lawmakers said they found it hard to believe that 80 percent of senior employees could be viewed as exceeding expectations, given the growing uproar over patients dying while awaiting VA treatment and mounting evidence that workers falsified or omitted appointment schedules to mask frequent, long delays.