Another long, hot summer at U.S. Veterans Affairs (VA) is in the history books without necessary reforms.
Over the past two months, veterans, watchdogs, national media, and powerful politicians in Congress challenged the VA over their $20 million in high-end art expenditures during a period when 1,000 veterans died without seeing a doctor.
For years, the VA art collection was curated without constraints. Our oversight audit, published at Forbes, not only exposed this spending but also laid-bare a procurement process the VA now admits was without rules or controls.
For example, a VA facility dedicated to serving blind – yes blind – veterans spent $670,000 for two commissioned sculptures. Just last month, a VA spokesperson stood in front of the infamous $1.2 million "cubed-rock" sculpture in Palo Alto, CA and argued that this type of artwork "creates a healing environment." Yes, nothing creates a healing environment quite like long waiting lines that are in part the result of resources being misallocated.
Watch the VA spokesman defend $6 million in Palo Alto art purchases live on the San Francesco evening news on August 2, 2016…
The public outcry regarding these decisions created an easy opportunity for the VA to institute commonsense reforms. So, how did the VA do?
The VA issued an apology and instituted new rules governing artwork purchases going forward, but ignored a proposed policy that veterans’ art be displayed in VA medical centers.
Here’s our analysis based on recent VA correspondence…
First, Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) wrote VA Secretary Robert McDonald an oversight letter demanding answers. Earlier this month, Grassley received an apology:
"In the case of Palo Alto, the dollar amount to acquire single pieces and/or types of commissioned artwork appeared to be excessive … We acknowledge the poor decision making regarding artwork purchases at Palo Alto."
With $6 million in high-end art expenditures at the Palo Alto VA medical center, the VA Secretary was right to apologize. And it’s important to acknowledge government agencies rarely apologize.
Second, the VA finally instituted official rules regulating the purchase of artwork on a go forward basis. But, here’s the problem: the new rules are weakly designed, and don’t stop future luxury art purchases. The VA now merely requires just a few more administrators to sign-off on the transactions.
Third, the VA continues to argue that "artwork creates a healing environment" while ignoring our reform that calls for veterans’ artwork be displayed in veterans’ medical facilities.
The VA’s argumentative attitude and lack of real reform perplexed Ms. Beverly Perlson, founder of the noted veterans support group, The Band of Mothers. Last week, Ms. Perlson wrote her second letter to Secretary McDonald expressing her common-sense frustrations:
"Our Veterans do not need a cubed rock to heal them, they desperately need efficiency in the delivery of services to them, such as timely appointments to see doctors and assistance with medication and treatment.
"You stated in your letter to me: ‘It is important to note that studies from organizations, including the National Institute of Health, consistently highlight the positive, therapeutic value of artwork.’ And then you state: ‘For these reasons, we will continue to keep pace with industry standards of care when creating space for Veterans that are both functional and therapeutic.’ That suggests to me you plan to continue purchasing extravagant artwork outside the Veteran community to decorate VA centers.
"I implore you to put an end to this extravagant purchase of artwork and utilize the truly therapeutic source of artwork among our Veteran community." #VETSART4VA
So, why didn’t the VA institute a permanent moratorium on pricey art?
Well, it could be personal to the top administrators. Oil portraits, busts, and self-named buildings have a certain appeal to bureaucrats. In 2010, the VA spent $60,000 for two commissioned oil portraits of the previous Secretaries of Veterans Affairs: James Peake ($24,882) and Jim Nicholson ($24,675). Additionally, thousands of dollars were spent on a sculpture bust of Congressman Jerry L. Pettis in 2012 on a medical center that already bears his name within the Loma Linda VA system, California.
All of these expenditures occurred during now-infamous VA scandal, when 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.
All of us need to keep challenging the status quo at the VA. Our veterans deserve at least quality, if not world-class, healthcare. They fought for us and we must continue to fight for them.
Adam Andrzejewski is CEO of OpenTheBooks.com – the world’s largest private database of government spending with 3 billion captured expenditures posted online and in our Open The Books mobile app.