Has the Department of Veterans Affairs finally gone to the birds? Welcome to the latest case in what many say is a systemic pattern of ineptitude at the VA and the agency it oversees, the Veterans Health Administration.
388-Acre Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles failed to serve Veterans
This one involves a 388-acre Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles, much of which was leased to businesses and other organizations that had nothing to do with helping veterans. The tenants included UCLA’s baseball complex, movie studios, a hotel laundry facility — even a rare-bird sanctuary — among others, all while thousands of area homeless veterans were left out in the cold. Literally.
It’s a familiar refrain by now. A Veterans Affairs facility wastes millions of dollars through mismanagement, botched services, poor recordkeeping, and a lack of oversight. Meanwhile, taxpayers, and especially veterans — the very people the VA is supposed to serve — pay for it in the end.
The West L.A. campus, known formally as the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration, bore the brunt of House members’ wrath Tuesday during a congressional subcommittee hearing. The hearing, which focused on the VA’s land-use agreements at several of its properties, was conducted by the House Committee of Veterans Affairs’ Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee.
West L.A. Campus land was donated specifically to help soldiers
The land on which the West L.A. campus sits was donated in 1888 by Arcadia B. de Baker, whose bequest said the property must be used as a home for “disabled soldiers.” More than 125 years later, that condition still applies. But the recent use of the property for birds, baseball and Hollywood sets shows how far the VA has strayed, critics say.
“Considering the land was given specifically for veterans’ care, the VA is in violation of the terms of the original bequest,” said Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), chairman of the subcommittee.
Coffman, an Iraq War veteran, has been an ardent critic of the VA as it tries to recover from last year’s scandal involving veterans who died while waiting for care at VA facilities. The scandal and other cases of mismanagement led to the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in May of last year and multiple investigations by Congress, the White House and the FBI.
One day after Tuesday’s hearing, Coffman and newly installed Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald got into an unusual and highly public war of words after a fuming McDonald, stung by Coffman’s criticism, insulted the congressman.
Veteran Affairs Mismanagement: ‘An Atrocity’
Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) called a Government Accountability Office report on the VA’s land-use practices in West Los Angeles and elsewhere “an outrage” and yet another example of the agency’s mismanagement. The report was conducted last year, following a ruling by a federal judge that leases unrelated to VA services at the West L.A. property were invalid.
The ruling and subsequent report prompted calls for change at the facilities. VA officials who appeared before the subcommittee say those changes are in the works, part of a plan by McDonald to turn the West L.A. property into a temporary and permanent housing for homeless veterans. The agency has until October to finish a new master plan for the campus.
Walorski, who quipped that Congress was “waiting …with bated breath” for the plan, said that’s all well and good. But she wasn’t about to let the VA off the hook.
“I find it interesting that here we have a property [that] has been used to do laundry, to play baseball, and to provide a bird sanctuary, all at a time when the homeless population is the highest it’s ever been,” Walorski said. “To most Americans who hear this story, it’s an atrocity that veterans are sleeping outside in the cold while the VA — again — has to stop what it’s doing, readjust with new employers and go back and correct many, many years of wrongs.”
Walorski pointed out that Donna M. Beiter, the recently retired executive director of the West L.A. campus who retired last year, lived on the campus in a 3,500-square-foot home whose rent on the open market would be close to $10,000 a month.
“And how much was Ms. Beiter paying?” Walorski asked Skye McDougall, acting director of Desert Pacific Healthcare Network, which oversees the campus.
“$2,450 per month,” McDougall responded.
“$2,450 a month,” Walorski repeated. “That’s quite a deal. I’m sure American taxpayers are interested in that, considering the immense veterans homeless population in and around that complex.”
She then followed with a rhetorical question.
“Aren’t the houses being provided to administration leadership better suited to actually support homeless veterans?” Walorski asked.
McDougall responded in typical bureaucratese. “We are taking over in my office the [housing] management program and we’ll be rolling that into how we evaluate land-use in the master plan overall,” he said.
The VA was also Losing Revenue
Leasing space to organizations unrelated to VA services wasn’t the only problem the GAO report found at the West L.A. campus and other facilities the report looked at.
“Far too often, the VA improperly paid for services it did not receive and failed to collect what it was owed,” said Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.), the subcommittee’s ranking member.
Indeed, in many cases, the VA failed to collect rent from its tenants, and in one case, contrary to VA policy, the West L.A. campus waived $250,000 in rent owed by a nonprofit organization due to “financial hardship.”
What’s more, the facility had no plan in place to make sure the rent that was paid went to veterans’ services, according to Stephen Lord, a forensic auditor who worked with the GAO on the report.
“That was the failing of [these land-use agreements],” Lord said in response to a question by Kuster. “They were collecting revenue but there was no direct relationship to the provisions for health care services to veterans.”
McDougall said the West L.A. campus does house 818 veterans, adding that most, if not all of its housing designated for veterans is currently being used for that purpose. And the waiting time for medical care at the facility — one of the major failings brought to light in the scandal that erupted at the VA last year — was relatively good, at just four days.
And Walorski and other legislators acknowledged that McDougall and the other VA witness at the hearing, Janet Murphy, were new on the job and not responsible, or even aware, of the mismanagement at the VA properties. Both women began their current posts in January.
Still, legislators made clear they want assurances the VA will clean up its act and make sure its facilities, either directly or indirectly through leases to non-VA entities, go to help veterans.
“Land-use agreements may indeed be an important tool in the VA’s tool chest,” said Kuster. “But only if the data is reliable, and there is real oversight to make sure that [veterans] are properly benefitting from these agreements.”