Defense

VA eyes building closures to boost care under Trump

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The Trump administration is considering whether to shut down Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities and consolidate hospitals to save money. 

The move, tentatively supported by lawmakers and veterans groups alike, would dispose of some of the agency’s more than 1,200 vacant or underused buildings and then use the savings to improve healthcare access for veterans.

{mosads}The buildings eyed for closure include storage facilities and medical centers, which include warehouses, sheds, garages, greenhouses, dorms, gyms, chapels, research laboratories, libraries, dining halls, nursing homes and offices. The structures are often older and part of larger medical campuses.

The VA has more than 6,200 owned buildings, and more than 1,200 of them are vacant or underutilized, according to the agency.

“Maintaining excess property is just something more on the VA’s plate,” said Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars. “Maintaining heating and air conditioning and plumbing in a vacant building is not a dollar well spent. Even though the dollar amounts saved from this may not seem large, on the grand scale of things, it’s still significant. It needs to be done.”

President Trump has repeatedly vowed to reform the VA and increase accountability at the department, even creating a 10-point plan for reforming it. He has called the effort one of the “crown jewels” of his administration.

“It’s going to change, and under my administration it will change,” Trump said of the agency.

The VA has come under heavy criticism for its long wait times for medical appointments, its failure to quickly fire bad employees and its slow appeal process for benefits.

But in the new effort, the VA will seek to cut down on excess infrastructure, using the saved dollars to bolster veteran care at remaining facilities or possibly expand the Veterans Choice Program, which enables veterans to receive certain kinds of treatment outside of the VA system.

There was nothing in Trump’s VA budget, released Tuesday, specifying plans for unused or underutilized buildings. But an infrastructure plan fact sheet from the administration revealed several details on what could come. 

“The Administration will pursue numerous reforms to help VA acquire and maintain the facilities necessary to provide veterans high quality medical care where they live,” the fact sheet states. 

“The budget includes proposals to expand VA’s authority to lease out its vacant assets for commercial or mixed-use purposes and to speed its ability to pursue facility renovations and improvements. Future reforms will encourage public-private partnerships and reduce barriers to acquisition, contracting, and disposals.”

VA Secretary David Shulkin earlier this month testified to the Senate Appropriations veterans affair subcommittee that he was seeking to “dispose of resources or buildings that are not helping veterans today, that are sitting vacant or underutilized,” which would equate to $25 million in annual savings.

“I could be using that money to support the capital needs of buildings and facilities that are helping veterans,” he said.

And at a House Appropriations hearing the same month, Shulkin said the VA had identified more than 430 vacant and 735 underutilized buildings.

He added that the VA would work with Congress to identify buildings to shutter and was considering using the Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process as a model.

“Whether the BRAC is a model that we should take a look at, we’re beginning to have discussions with members of Congress about their suggestions,” Shulkin said during the hearing. “We want to stop supporting our use of [and] maintenance of buildings we don’t need, and we want to reinvest that in the buildings that we know have capital needs.”

The VA does not need congressional approval to dispose of buildings and may relinquish such facilities to the General Services Administration, an independent agency that helps manage and support the basic functions of government agencies.

Military BRAC has been a frequent point of tension in recent years. Pentagon officials have repeatedly requested a BRAC round, but lawmakers, worried that the process would target military installations and jobs in their districts, have always scrapped the idea.

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are singing a different tune on a similar effort within the VA. Such a move is seen as an attractive option to cut waste and government spending without compromising jobs, bolstered all the more by a businessman now in the White House.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) — the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman — said he is “is open to exploring various options to help reduce some of the inefficiency and waste within the VA system.”

Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), the ranking member on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said, on its surface, “The proposal to sell vacant and underutilized VA facilities seems like a commonsense way to save millions of taxpayer dollars annually while generating additional resources to reinvest in care for our veterans.”

The VA should “absolutely” sell or partner with other federal agencies to determine a better use for the “hundreds of decrepit VA-owned buildings sitting empty across the country,” Walz said in a statement to The Hill.

He added, however, “It is imperative we ensure that access to care for veterans in rural and underserved communities will not be undermined in any way by the removal of underutilized facilities.”  

Phillip Carter, a military and veterans expert at the Center for a New American Security, said politicians are likely more open to the VA closures because they would have a limited impact on jobs.

Washington is also under pressure, thanks in part to Trump, to improve veteran care.

“Lawmakers understand the political costs of allowing another access crisis in the VA,” Carter said. “If the VA can’t deliver healthcare in a timely manner for the veterans who need it, that may override traditional political opposition to facility closure.”

He added that savings from facility closure “helps on the margins” in fixing the VA’s larger healthcare access problem.

“It’s hard to tally up exactly how much the VA spends on inefficient infrastructure, but it’s something,” Carter said.

The plan is not without its critics, however. Shulkin didn’t specify at the Senate and House hearings whether he would seek to close any underused medical facilities, but such a move could face blowback in Congress, as many veterans are forced to drive long distances for specific care.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) questioned Shulkin’s closure efforts during the House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

Udall pointed to a recently published Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found that the VA does not adequately work with local veteran communities when they shut down a facility or relocate services.

“Specifically GAO found, and I quote here, ‘the VA has not consistently followed best practices for effectively engaging stakeholders in facility consolidation efforts,’ ” Udall said.

Shulkin assured the lawmaker that “the intent here is to dispose of resources or buildings that are not helping veterans today. … I have no interest in privatizing the VA. I am interested in using our resources to help veterans.”

Isakson, meanwhile, is “hopeful that the VA will continue to consult with Congress on ways to accomplish this goal while ensuring there is no impediment to veterans’ care or services in the process.”

Just don’t call the process a BRAC.  Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), vice chairman of the House Appropriations panel, told Shulkin that Congress would work “constructively” with the VA on the issue, but warned against using the Pentagon term.

“Don’t ever use the word BRAC, because it brings up a lot of bad memories,” he said. “You automatically set yourself up for controversy.”

Fortenberry suggested instead “that we call it MISC, acronym for miscellaneous — Military Installation Savings Commission.”

Tags Jeff Fortenberry Johnny Isakson Tom Udall

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