Unused Cellphones Cost Taxpayers Millions | Citizens Against Government Waste

Unused Cellphones Cost Taxpayers Millions

The WasteWatcher

In another example of how waste and mismanagement permeate even the most well-intentioned programs, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) overbought thousands of iPhones and iPads that were intended to improve access to telemedicine for veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic.  A May 4, 2022, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit report documented how the VA spent approximately $8.1 million for 10,000 iPhones and $63 million for 80,930 iPads with unlimited prepaid calling plans that were meant to be used to expand access to telemedicine for veterans.     These devices came with unlimited prepaid data plans that were initiated before they were shipped to the distribution center in Denver, Colorado, between June 2020 and July 2021, where they were supposed to be sent around the country upon request. 

The IG concluded that 8,544, or 85 percent, of the iPhones, which cost $6.9 million, were still in the storage as of July 2021, costing an estimated $1.8 million in unused data plans.  The IG also found that $571,000 was wasted on unused data plans for the iPads.  Increasing access to telemedicine was a laudable goal during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the VA clearly failed to implement oversight of its inventory and used taxpayer money irresponsibly.  The IG recommended that that VA develop a better system of storage for data plan providers and create a new process to prevent the future waste of data plans.

The IG’s report is not surprising, since the VA’s acquisition management program has been on the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) High-Risk List since 2019.  The problems include  “(1) outdated acquisition regulations and policies; (2) lack of an effective medical supplies procurement strategy; (3) inadequate acquisition training; (4) contracting officer workload challenges; (5) lack of reliable data systems; (6) limited contract oversight and incomplete contract file documentation; and (7) leadership instability.”  The GAO has made a total of 48 recommendations to improve the VA’s acquisition management since 2015 but over half of these recommendations are yet to be acted upon. 

The VA requested a budget of $301.4 billion for fiscal year 2023, a 13 percent increase over their FY22 enacted level of $268.5 billion. The VA also received an additional $19.6 billion in July 2020 to address the COVID-19 pandemic.  Given the agency’s track record of failing to properly manage the money they have been given, which leads to poor service for veterans, Congress should insist on getting these improvements done as quickly as possible at the VA.

The money wasted on iPhones and iPads are one of many examples of how pandemic relief funds were wasted.  The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act provided $350 billion to state and local governments.  These taxpayer dollars were used on unnecessary projects like high school sports stadiums, golf courses, and bird sanctuaries in urban environments.  

It’s clear that a lack of oversight and management caused the VA to waste taxpayer dollars on cellphones that were never used by those who needed them.  Improvements at the VA including better use and management of taxpayer dollars will lead to a more efficient agency to help those who sacrificed for our country.  These issues are not unique to the VA and examples of waste and mismanagement are plentiful.  It’s incumbent on federal agencies and Congress to demand and implement greater oversight and management of taxpayer dollars. 

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