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VA putting bureaucracy before bravery

Published on -10/2/2012, 9:26 AM

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While we continue to see and hear stories about America's veterans receiving subpar medical care, the bureaucrats charged with overseeing the health needs of our brave men and women in uniform apparently are sparing no expense in taking care of themselves instead.

As a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, I take seriously our responsibility to provide oversight of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. So this summer when it came to light the VA spent more than $50,000 on a video featuring a General Patton impersonator, we demanded to know more. We feared it was just the tip of the iceberg.

And the tip of the iceberg it was.

Our own internal digging uncovered the first shock: At least $2.5 million spent last year on the National Veterans Golden Age Games hosted at the luxurious Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu.

While on paper the Golden Age Games seem like a noble cause to provide senior veterans with an Olympic-style sports competition, is it really a prudent use of our taxpayer resources and theirs to have this event at one of the top -- and most expensive -- vacation destinations in 2011? Nope. With so many wounded warriors and homeless veterans, was it right for the VA to spend more than $1 million on an event planner who works in Alaska? Of course not. Was it right to spend thousands of dollars on floral arrangements, polo shirts and a Polynesian outrigger canoe exhibition? Doubt it.

How can these bureaucrats look our veterans in the eye and with straight faces when they are swiping the taxpayers' credit card like there is no tomorrow?

No doubt the cost of airfare and lodging was cost-prohibitive for many veterans who in the past traveled to centrally located places such as Leavenworth in 1997, Topeka in 2000, Des Moines, Iowa, in 2010, or St. Louis this summer. But, of course it was not cost-prohibitive for VA to send 178 employees. The taxpayers picked up the tab for them. Sounds like a nice work trip, right?

In the meantime, we filed a congressional inquiry with the VA to get more information about the conferences. And then we waited. And waited. A few weeks later, the VA's Chief Financial Officer testified before our committee and ultimately admitted in 2011 VA spent $100 million of hard-earned taxpayer dollars on conferences -- including $80 million just for bureaucrat travel alone.

Finally, nearly a month after our initial request, the VA delivered a list of its 2011 conferences -- including details about the numbers of participants, the purported reasons for the conferences and the admitted costs.

According to the data, the VA hosted 373 conferences in 2011 with a total cost of $67 million. Top destinations included Texas, Nevada (Las Vegas) and Florida. Approximately one-third of the total amount spent on conferences was spent in one of these states.

But also, perhaps even more shocking -- but not surprising with this administration -- was approximately $5 million was spent on training unions on how to comply with the labor agreement they reached with the VA. As part of the labor contract, the taxpayer-funded VA is required to pay for workers to learn more about the labor agreement. Who would have thought these 25 five-day conferences would be in such fun destinations as Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Nashville and San Juan, Puerto Rico?

As if it were not enough the VA continues operations like this when our veterans are suffering, they are doing so amid Obama's trillion-dollar plus annual deficits and a massive $16 trillion in debt. When American businesses were forced to tighten their belts, many did away with conferences and expensive travel for their employees.

Washington, on the other hand, just kept spending -- even when America's brave veterans should have been the higher, and certainly nobler, priority.

U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler and Hutchinson, represents the First District of Kansas and serves on the House Agriculture, Budget, and Veterans' Affairs committees.

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