The VA Palo Alto Health Care System and other federal facilities for veterans are at the center of a firestorm over wasteful government spending involving artwork.
In Palo Alto alone, the VA spent $6.3 million on sculptures and other artwork as well as related consulting services in the past 10 years, according to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
The artwork debacle is the latest scandal to hit the Department of Veterans Affairs in a decade rife with allegations of waste and mismanagement, and comes on the heels of revelations that veterans had to wait exceedingly long periods for treatment and some died before ever seeing a doctor.
Although long patient wait times haven’t been an issue at the Palo Alto center, Peninsula representatives criticized its spending on artwork as excessive while medical care languishes at other VA hospitals.
"I’m appalled by the recent reports of the VA spending millions of dollars on lavish artwork and decorative objects during the same period of time our veterans, many of them dealing with life-threatening conditions, were languishing without medical care due to excessive appointment wait times," U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, wrote in response to a request for comment.
Speier said she hopes to learn in coming weeks which officials made such "indefensible decisions" and will do whatever she can to prevent wasteful spending.
"At a time when federal budgets are under enormous pressure to do more with less and scandals have plagued the Veterans Administration’s lack of services to our nation’s veterans, reports that millions of dollars were allegedly spent on art doesn’t exactly square with the public or me," U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, added.
VA spokeswoman Walinda West said in a statement the agency is developing a national art policy to include commissioned artwork. She did not say when the policy will be in place.
"While we must be stewards of taxpayer dollars, we also know that providing comprehensive health care for patients goes beyond just offering the most advanced medical treatments," West stated. "Artwork is one of the many facets that create a healing environment for our nation’s veterans."
West continued: "We want an atmosphere that welcomes them to VA facilities, shows them respect and appreciation, honors them for their service and sacrifice and exemplifies that this is a safe place for them to receive their care."
On Wednesday, West referred questions about how much was spent on artwork in Palo Alto to colleagues at VA Palo Alto.
When reached on Friday, Damian McGee, a spokesman for VA Palo Alto, said that he could not immediately provide documents and contracts detailing exactly how much was spent in Palo Alto, but plans to do so on Monday.
McGee disclosed that the facility’s construction budget was $2 billion and what was spent on art work was less than half of 1 percent of the overall spending.
"There are plenty of hospitals in this area and across the country that have similar artwork to improve the environment in which their patients receive care," said McGee, who is also a military veteran. "Yes, veterans deserve top-notch medical care, but they also deserve an aesthetically pleasing environment in which to heal and to receive that care."
A House committee that is investigating the Department of Veterans Affairs meanwhile still is trying to determine how much it has paid for artwork at facilities across the country.
After a number of failed attempts to get relevant documents, the committee subpoenaed the VA last week for the information and is demanding an answer by Sept. 28.
The VA centers combined likely spent more than $20 million for artwork between 2004 and 2014, according to an investigation by Cox Media and Open the Books
, a website that tracks government spending operated by the nonprofit American Transparency.
According to their information, VA Palo Alto over the past decade spent:
- $483,000 for "Aggregate," a rock sculpture that is part of a $1.3 million courtyard at the new Mental Health Center.$330,750 for a white, half-arc sculpture that is near the Mental Health Center.
- $305,000 for a green sculpture with letter cutouts in an exterior lobby.
- $365,745 for a stainless steel and aluminum sculpture at the Aquatic Center.
- $285,000 for a holographic colored glass façade adorning a parking structure that translates quotes from Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt into Morse Code.
- At least $115,000 on consulting for the art installations.
The VA said in a Sept. 1 letter to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that its documents show $4.7 million was spent on single artwork purchases nationally in recent years.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, chairman of the House committee, said the VA’s response has been "wholly incomplete" and does not make sense considering the House committee already substantiated that $6.3 million was spent in the Palo Alto system alone.
"Either the reported $20 million, 10-year total is incomplete, or the Palo Alto Health Care System expenditures represent an extraordinarily large portion of VA’s nationwide spending," Miller said.
Navy veteran Ron Ratola, who currently is in hospice care at the Palo Alto campus for cirrhosis of the liver, said it is "crazy" for VA Palo Alto to spend so much on art.
On Tuesday afternoon, Ratola sat in a motorized wheelchair under a tree near the entrance to the VA hospital, talking to friends about winning vouchers from bingo night and an upcoming visit to the zoo.
Ratola, who had served on a combat supply ship in the military, gestured toward "Triumph," a commissioned sculpture of interconnected rusted steel at a new building on campus. He doesn’t find it therapeutic or inspiring.
"It ain’t helping me with nothing," Ratola said.
Instead of spending money on art, the VA can hire more nurses, improve the quality of food in its cafeterias and, more importantly, expand its home palliative care services, Ratola said.
Kenneth Pierre, a Vietnam veteran who lives in the Opportunity Center for the homeless in Palo Alto, said money from the VA’s artwork budget should be used to house veterans, especially in Silicon Valley where affordable units are scarce.
"I’m not criticizing the artwork or what have you," Pierre said, "but there are a lot of veterans who don’t have a place to live. Shelters are full. These guys get out of the military, give them a year or two and they’re straight homeless."
Pierre manages the Downtown Streets Team and works with homeless men and women, some of whom are veterans, to develop job skills through daily cleaning projects in Palo Alto.
Pierre said he’d like to see more projects like Willow Housing, a 60-unit apartment complex for veterans who are homeless or at-risk that is part of VA Palo Alto Health Care System’s Menlo Park campus. The $29.5 million development had a grand opening in February.