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VA let vets die, but the art is great
Aug. 5, 2016 Updated 12:00 a.m.
By ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER EDITORIAL
Veterans Affairs hospitals across the nation have been plagued in recent years by unacceptable wait times for veterans – some even died waiting for an appointment – but that did not stop the Department of Veterans Affairs from spending nearly $20 million on artwork over 11 years, according to an investigation by COX Media Washington, D.C. and American Transparency, which runs the OpenTheBooks.com website.
The VA spent millions on high-end art even as a scandal unfolded over employees at a number of facilities falsifying appointment records to cover up lengthy wait times. While the VA had set a goal of ensuring that veterans are able to see a doctor within 14 days, some vets were forced to wait months, or even more than a year, to receive care.
"Over the past decade, more than 1,000 veterans may have died as a result of VA malfeasance, and the VA has paid out nearly $1 billion to veterans and their families for its medical malpractice," then-Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., wrote in a 2014 report. In addition to the scheduling malfeasance, the report detailed other staff misconduct and criminal activity, an unwillingness to hold misbehaving employees accountable, delayed disability benefits claims, doctor shortages, excessive salaries and bonus incentives and a lack of transparency.
In all, the VA spent $19.7 million on artwork, art consulting and restoration services from fiscal year 2004 through FY 2014. Moreover, the COX Media-OpenTheBooks.com study finds, the artwork budget saw a marked increase under the Obama administration, jumping from a total of approximately $1.5 million for FY 2004-2007 to $16.2 million plus another $2 million on "special projects" for FY 2008-2014.
The expenditures included $21,500 for a 27-foot artificial Christmas tree for the Chillicothe, Ohio, facility, a $482,960 "rock sculpture" and $115,600 for "art consultants" for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, $670,000 for two sculptures for a Palo Alto facility dedicated to serving blind veterans, $610,000 over six years for artwork at the new facility in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and $168,467 for the Biloxi, Miss., health care centers, which were named among one of the seven "most troubled" VA facilities during the wait-time scandal.
"All of this artwork comes with a long-term price tag in the form of diminished care for our veterans," Adam Andrzejewski, founder and CEO of OpenTheBooks.com, argued in a recent Forbes column. "Blind veterans can’t see fancy sculptures, and all veterans would be happier if they could just see a doctor," he quipped.
Mr. Andrzejewski also made a common-sense suggestion: Let the veterans receiving care provide the art. The VA already holds an annual National Veteran Creative Arts Competition for vets enrolled in VA medical facilities or outpatient clinics. Why not let the vets adorn the facilities (and at a significant cost savings)?
In the grand scheme of things, $20 million is a small fraction of the VA’s budget, but at a time when the agency is failing to deliver health care services in a timely manner, the department should exercise better judgment in getting its priorities in order and devoting as many resources as possible to improving the care of our veterans.