CHILLICOTHE — Officials with Chillicothe's VA Medical Center are defending a 2011 purchase of a $21,500 Christmas tree for the center's Building 9 auditorium after an Illinois senator recently singled out the purchase as one example of what he feels is frivolous spending by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Sen. Mark Kirk, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies, sent a letter July 26 to VA Secretary Robert McDonald expressing concerns about VA spending on items not directly tied to veterans' care. The letter followed a report in Forbes magazine stating the VA system has spent more than $20 million over the last 10 years on purchases of high-end artwork.
"Spending money on decorative art while veterans wait for care is unacceptable and Secretary McDonald should block any more purchases and formalize processes to use artwork by veterans instead," Kirk said. "The VA has not taken the year-old directive to stop excessive spending, and I'm calling for an immediate moratorium on art purchases until a Congressionally-approved process is formally instated so the American people are informed on how their tax dollars are spent."
Kirk, a Republican facing a re-election challenge from Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth in November, states in his letter that while artwork was being purchased — including $1.8 million in the last year — "the VA failed to pay private medical practices billions of dollars for medical treatment provided to veterans under the Veterans Choice Program, a program created to address the VA's wait time scandal in 2014."
Citing research produced by OpenTheBooks.com, an Illinois nonprofit organization, Kirk lays out specific examples of what he says is extravagant spending, including more than $2.5 million on sculptures and artwork for a center in Palo Alto, California, $32,000 on 62 local image photos in San Francisco, $100,000 for a glass sculpture at an outpatient center in Anchorage, Alaska, and $610,000 in artwork for a new facility in Puerto Rico. Chillicothe's facility also made his list.
"Dr. David J. Sulking, M.D., the UnderSecretary for Health Veterans Health Administration, and yourself (McDonald) have testified before my subcommittee that the VA is understaffed and budget-strapped," Kirk wrote. "Yet, the VA continues to spend irrationally on decorations instead of on care for our veterans, like $21,500 for a 27-foot artificial Christmas tree in Chillicothe, Ohio."
Gayle Irvin, chief of voluntary services for the Chillicothe VA Medical Center, said the tree was bought in 2011 at the request of local VA officials and using funds appropriated within existing purchasing guidelines to support patient activities. The tree was purchased after researching various vendors for a commercial-grade tree that would work in the high-traffic, well-used Building 9 auditorium, with plans for it to last at least 20 years, making the cost around $1,075 annually. Irvin noted the price included a warranty and shipping costs.
Irvin went on to say having the tree serves several purposes, some involving the fact that several community organizations sponsor activities with patients in the auditorium that help fill patient leisure time, keep them in touch with the community and make their stays a little more pleasant.
"The busiest time of year for patient activities is during November and December when new and existing volunteer groups host holiday events for our veterans, spending hundreds, even thousands, of dollars," Irvin said. "Holiday months with no decorations or decorations so small they are not visible would certainly be gloomy, decreasing morale and possibly increasing depression in those already at risk from being in the hospital and away from family and friends during that time of year.
"Additionally, this VA Medical Center serves as home for our 150-plus residents in our community living centers, and part of providing a home-like environment is celebrating various holidays as any family would."
Steve Benson, chief of facilities management service for the local VA, said a directive does exist now with regard to the amount that can be spent on artwork.
"The Chillicothe VA Medical Center does not have a set annual amount to spend on decorative artwork," he said. "However, there is a VA Central Office directive that limits the amount of funds to $20,000 per project. In 2016, we purchased just under $20,000 in artwork for the new Marietta VA clinic and approximately $2,500 for a display in the Chillicothe VAMC."
Kirk, the junior senator from Illinois, has been a vocal critic of VA leadership and been involved with creating legislation designed to protect whistleblowers who expose patient abuse, increase health services for female veterans, bolster screening of medical center personnel, prevent VA doctors from overprescribing opioids and boosting funding to combat veteran homelessness.