Carlton: A real sickness that needs to be cured
By Brian Carlton Jul 30, 2016 (1)
They had no money, so the claim went. No money to man the suicide hotline, which went directly to voicemail. No money for more doctors, as the waiting list stretched for months. And yet somehow, the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) was able to spend $21,000 on a Christmas tree - an artificial one at that.
On Friday, the government watchdog group Open The Books released a new report, detailing what exactly the Veterans Administration spent money on over the last decade. And spend they did. During that time, the department spent $20 million on art. About $16 million of that was spent from 2008 to 2016. That’s a hard thing to swallow.
The list reads like something a third grader would come up with, although most elementary age kids I know have more common sense. That tree I mentioned? A 27-foot structure, bought in 2011. I’m sure the soldiers felt better, knowing they had that tree to look at while they waited for care.
Another segment of the report details $670,000 spent on art for the Palo Alto Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center. The justification? That wounded soldiers should have some beautiful sculptures to appreciate as they are being treated. More than half a million dollars was taken away from the actual medical treatment fund in order to give blinded soldiers something to see.
Even if we’re willing to believe the sculpture was meant to be seen by the wounded at Palo Alto, why was one of them placed in the parking garage? Who stops on their way to a doctor’s appointment to feel a sculpture?
Let's look at some other examples. A new veterans facility went up in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2009. Between 2009 and 2014, the VA put $610,000 into the operation, but none of that was spent on medical equipment. It all went toward artwork. Then there's the Northern California Art Conservators. What do they do, you ask? They restore historic artwork. The VA signed a contract with the NCAC to "restore, collaborate, and coordinate installation of historical pieces" for a cost of more than $410,000. Restoring historic artwork is great, if you're a museum or a historical society. When your stated goal is to treat the injuries of veterans, I have a hard time accepting the idea of spending that much money for art.
We had an example of that wonderful spending here locally too. The VA facility in Salem paid $148,482 for art, according to the report. They weren’t alone. In Minneapolis, the VA Medical Center spent $242,933 and the Biloxi Center dropped $168,467, all while wounded soldiers waited for a doctor. A VA outpatient center in Anchorage, Alaska got $100,000 for art, split between an "interior commons wall" painting by Red Door Studio in 2009 and artwork for the "canteen," also in 2009. It’s worth pointing out that $100,000 would pay for at least one, maybe two doctors. Something tells me the soldiers would have gone without art if they could get quicker treatment.
I have friends serving right now in the Army, Navy and Marines. Some have been to Afghanistan, while others have served a few tours in Iraq. Some I’ve known for just a few years. Others I grew up with. I think of them any time I find garbage like this. I think of what happens if they get injured and then come home needing treatment. Two of them already have and waited for weeks until they could be seen. I read this report and have to wonder how much of that delay could have been avoided. Did the VA in North Carolina have money to spend on doctors and use it on art instead?
In response to the report, VA officials swear they’re going to change; they’re going to amend the rules for "high-end art collection." They just don’t get it. No, you don’t need to amend the rules. You need to end the practice, period.
Earlier this year while in Waynesboro, I raised issue with another report, one that showed how the Department of the Interior spent $92 million over the past decade on office furniture. Instead of going where it needs to, our tax dollars go to put a new chair in someone’s office or a bit of art in a parking garage.
The people who make these decisions, who order money to be used on art rather than doctor salaries have never served, clearly. They’ve never had to struggle to balance budgets, or figure out what to do when a family member is sick and you don’t have the money for treatment.
But beyond that, here’s my problem. All of this was listed in their budget each year. Nobody higher up thought this was a problem? When the budget came out in 2011, nobody in the administration batted an eye about spending $21,000 on a Christmas tree? That’s the real sickness the VA needs to cure.