In the now-infamous VA scandal of 2012-2015, the nation was appalled to learn that 1,000 veterans died while waiting to see a doctor. Tragically, many calls to the suicide assistance hotline were answered by voicemail. The health claim appeals process was known as "the hamster wheel" and the appointment books were cooked in seven of every ten clinics.
Yet, in the midst of these horrific failings the VA managed to spend $20 million on high-end art over the last ten years – with $16 million spent during the Obama years.
A joint investigation by COX Media Washington, D.C. and our organization, American Transparency
found that the VA bought Christmas trees priced like cars and sculptures that cost more than five-bedroom homes. Then, there’s the two sculptures – with a price tag of $670,000 – for a VA center serving veterans who are blind
Recently at Forbes, we released our oversight report
entitled, "The VA Scandal Two Years Later." The VA added 39,454 new positions to their payroll between 2012-2015, but fewer than one in 11 of these new positions (3,591) were ‘Medical Officers,’ i.e. doctors. Today, nearly 500,000 sick veterans are still wait-listed for an appointment because there just aren’t enough doctors.
Instead of hiring doctors to help triage backlogged veterans, the VA’s bonus-happy bureaucracy spent millions of dollars on art. During and immediately following its notorious scandal, the VA procured:
- A twenty-seven foot artificial Christmas tree costing $21,000 (2011).
- 62 "local image" pictures for the San Francisco VA facility costing $32,000 (2014).
- A "Ribbons of Honor" glass sculpture with five glass panels symbolic of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard by Weet Design for a VA outpatient center in Anchorage, AK costing $100,000 (2010). Artwork for the "interior commons wall" by Red Door Studio costing $65,000 (2009) and artwork for the "canteen" by artist David Deroux costing $30,000 (2009).
- Fabrication and installation of the "Gradient Arc" for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System costing $330,775 (2014). "Harbor" glass and light art by Studio GH costing $220,000 (2014) – showcased in this video. A $482,960 "rock sculpture" procured during courtyard renovation and $115,600 spent on "art consultants" for the Palo Alto facility.
In an ironic vignette, at a healthcare facility dedicated
to serving blind veterans – the new Palo Alto Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center – the agency wasted $670,000 on two sculptures no blind veteran can even see. The "Helmick Sculpture" cost $385,000 (2014) and a parking garage exterior wall façade by King Ray Studio for the "design, fabrication, and installation of the public artwork" cost $285,000 (2014).
Between 2009 and 2014, the VA spent over $610,000 on artwork for the new healthcare facility in San Juan, Puerto Rico – including transactions with the upscale
Omart Gallery ($56,100). The VA spent another $560,000 on art for three healthcare facilities: Minneapolis VA Medical Center ($242,933); Biloxi, MS ($168,467); and Salem, VA ($148,482). The Biloxi VA centers were part
of the seven "most troubled" VA facilities during the 2014 wait-time scandal. But at least they were well-decorated.
Our data shows millions of dollars spent on seemingly small transactions quickly added up. For example, $55,000 was spent on the "Metal Art Tree of Life with Leaves and Doves" and just two upholstered cornice window treatments cost nearly $16,000.
The affinity for art at the VA has been going on for a long time, but since 2008 the sheer amount of artwork disclosed by the VA increased dramatically. According to federal records captured by OpenTheBooks.com, the VA purchased $1.515 million in artwork (2004-2007). Then, during 2008 through 2014, the VA spent
16.2 million on artwork, art consulting and restoration services plus another $2 million on special projects.
All of this artwork comes with a long-term price tag in the form of diminished care for our veterans. During the peak of media attention on the wait-time scandal in 2014, the VA contracted with Northern California Art Conservators to "restore, collaborate, and coordinate installation of historical pieces" at a cost of more than $410,000.
Now the VA says they are going to change the rules on high-end art procurement. But, there’s a catch – a draft of these rules won’t be public for at least 90 days, and the VA has a terrible history of slow-walking or ignoring reforms.
So, let’s make it easy on the VA administrators with a simple, low-cost solution: start using the artwork of veterans. Let veterans benefit from the artwork they create within the PTSD and therapy programs.
Blind veterans can’t see fancy sculptures, and all veterans would be happier if they could just see a doctor.
Adam Andrzejewski is the Founder and CEO at OpenTheBooks.com – the world’s largest private repository of public spending. Search the FY2015 salaries of the 354,000 VA employees by their work location on our interactive map.