The Veterans Affairs administration (VA) spent approximately $20 million on expensive and unnecessary artwork while thousands of veterans died waiting to see doctors at understaffed VA healthcare facilities. Open The Books, a taxpayer watchdog group, released a report that shows over $20 million dollars were spent purchasing artwork for administrative offices and and hospitals over the course of 10 years. Some of the most extravagant purchases were made during the worst years of the now-infamous VA scandal of 2012-2015, where over 1,000 veterans died waiting to see a doctor in that span.
Open The Books teamed up with COX Media Washington, D.C. to create a comprehensive report showcasing the VA’s frivolous spending habits. It showed that, of the $20 million spent, $16 million of purchases were made under the Obama Administration.
Some of the most outrageous purchases include: $21,000 for a 27 foot fake Christmas tree, $32,000 for 62 “local image” pictures for the San Francisco VA, $115,600 for “art consultants” for the Palo Alto facility, $54,942 for a sculpture titled “Metal Art Tree Of Life With Leaves And Doves”, $482,960 for a “rock sculpture”
To put these purchases into perspective; the starting salary for a primary care physician at a VA facility is $98,000. Meaning that omitting the purchase of a single “rock sculpture” could have added at least 4 additional doctors to the staff to serve the 1,000 veterans that died waiting to see a doctor in 2014.
Adam Andrzejewski, the founder and CEO of Open the Books, commented on the lack of staff at so many clinics and the implications the incompetence of the VA had on so many veteran’s lives. He wrote in an editorial for Forbes:
“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.”
Some defenders of the VA tried to justify the VA’s spending by citing a study from the National Institute of Health in 2014 that shows that artwork has a “significant effect on the patient experience and on self-reported mood, stress, comfort and expectations.” Critics, however, refute these claims by citing evidence that a healthcare facility dedicated to serving blind veterans, the new Palo Alto Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center, spent over a quarter of a million dollars on artwork that couldn’t even be seen by the blind veterans at the facility.
The VA has claimed it will “reform its operations” to prevent frivolous purchases. Any changes that are made to reduce spending could take up to 90 days to go into effect. Andrzejewski has suggested that the VA consider purchasing art from veterans rather than 3rd party artists or dealers. He argue that this will allow the VA to continue to decorate facilities while also giving back to veterans directly.