TAMPA — One of the nation's busiest veteran hospitals found itself in a money crunch in 2009.
Leaders at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center worked frantically to find funds to offset a deficit that, at one point, was projected at more than $25 million, financial records show.
Travel costs were curtailed. Overtime scrutinized. Potential hires prioritized.
But amid the cuts, one budget item nearly tripled:
Haley paid its 175 business office employees $553,000 in fiscal 2009 bonuses, up from $196,000 the year before, according to Haley and budget records. Bonuses largely went up, Haley officials say, because of a new hospital program that rewarded workers who exceeded goals collecting money owed by insurers and veterans.
Collections went up 14 percent that year to $82 million compared to 2008. Bonuses shot up 181 percent. As bonuses climbed, so, too, did billing refunds.
Refunds of veteran co-pays climbed from $426,525 in fiscal 2007 to $1.5 million in 2010, Haley confirmed.
Haley officials describe the refunds as routine for any Department of Veterans Affairs hospital and said they do not point to flawed billing.
Some say the VA needs to be more forthcoming about bonuses in trying financial times.
Haley's 2009 bonuses "stand out like a search beacon in the desert," said Paul Sullivan, a veterans advocate who is the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense in Washington, D.C.
"VA should be more transparent, especially with bonuses, so the public is reassured the cash payments are reasonable and based on performance," he said.
VA officials in Washington did not respond to questions about Haley's bonuses or whether other VA facilities offer them. And Haley won't say why its refunds climbed so dramatically.
About 87,000 patients get treatment at Haley, ranked 9th among VA facilities nationally. Haley boasts what may be the premier polytrauma unit in the nation, where the most severely wounded veterans are treated.
The St. Petersburg Times obtained Haley financial records detailing bonuses from 2007 to 2010 that totaled $1 million. Haley confirmed some budget figures and provided additional detail. Not all the bonuses in those years involved meeting collections goals.
Other bonuses were granted for things like performance or suggesting cost cuts or working on special projects, Haley said.
Haley defended bonuses as both proper and cost effective.
Haley spokeswoman Carolyn Clark said they "engage many or all employees in a common effort to achieve gains in productivity, quality or effectiveness and share" savings with workers.
The VA hasn't been nearly as generous to workers at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg. That hospital also met its collection goals in fiscal 2009. But Bay Pines paid its 100 business employees just $26,500 in bonuses that year, Bay Pines said.
Clark declined to comment on the disparity.
Haley confirmed that its bonuses were separate from year-end performance bonuses commonly paid at all VA facilities. The Times does not have figures on those year-end awards.
Some things found in Haley budget documents do not match what Haley says publicly.
For example, Clark told the Times, "There was no deficit," referring to 2009 and 2010.
In fact, Haley personnel themselves frequently used "deficit" in documents. A line for "Deficit" appears in budget summaries sent to Haley fiscal leaders.
"None of this makes me feel good," said Michael Corrigan, 49, a Marine veteran from Tampa who gets medical treatment at Haley. "Bonuses like that are a shame, a dirty rotten shame."
Reach William R. Levesque at email@example.com or (813) 226-3432.