Vacant VA Buildings Cost Taxpayers Millions

By Curtis Kalin

Wastewatcher, July 2017

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has gone through many trials and travails over the past several years.  A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) exposed another aspect of the department that enables waste and mismanagement.

A July 12, 2017 GAO report entitled, “Planning and Communication Improvements Could Help Better Align Facilities with Veterans' Needs,” vividly lays out the haunting fiscal picture for hundreds of VA facilities across the nation.  Images show vacant buildings, paid for and maintained by taxpayer dollars, in a sad state of disrepair, costing taxpayers millions of dollars every year. 

GAO pinned the blame on several factors:  “Limitations” in VA’s Strategic Capital Investment Planning (SCIP) and the VA Integrated Planning (VAIP) programs, and an overlapping budget cycle that forces new projects to be proposed before previous projects get funding.  Other limitations GAO referenced are systemic and stem from the faulty assumption that all future VA care will only be provided by VA hospitals and not private facilities, which is increasingly the case.  GAO identified SCIP’s primary problems as, “subjective narratives, long timeframes, and restricted access to information.”  Perhaps most frustrating is the GAO finding that VA routinely fails to adequately engage with stakeholders such as, “veterans; local, state, and federal officials; Veterans Service Organizations; historic preservation groups; VA staff; and Congress,” to identify their needs.  All of these problems lead to funding old, unnecessary, or vacant facilities or letting them lapse into hazardous condition. 

Former VA Secretary Anthony Principi told the House Veterans Affairs Committee on July 12, 2017, “I don’t think this can be sustained for another 10 to 15 years.  Our nation simply can’t afford to maintain a vast infrastructure built for a different time in health care delivery that was to care for tens of millions of veterans as they returned from World War II, Korea and Vietnam – and even from the Civil War, the Spanish American War and World War I.  VA is spending too much money on bricks and mortar, rather than doctors and nurses.”

For his part, new VA Secretary David Shulkin has already begun work on reducing VA’s property footprint, noting in May 2017 that the average age of a VA building is 60 years old.  Seventy-one vacant buildings have been slated for demolition, and another 359 are on the chopping block in the next two years.  Shulkin also stated that, “he was considering closing 784 other, underused buildings in order to save millions of dollars spent each year to maintain them.”

At the July 12 committee hearing, Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) stated plainly, “We can no longer continue to allow VA’s outdated, inflexible and ill-suited capital asset program to compromise the department’s core mission.”

Both VA healthcare and federal real property are on GAO’s “High Risk List” of areas in the federal government that are particularly susceptible to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement; which is why CAGW has been focused on these issues for several years.  It is long past time to reduce the VA’s bloated property portfolio and save taxpayers millions in the process.

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