by Jonathan Kaupanger
A 117 year old chapel, described once as an “intricate little jewel box” in West Los Angeles, closed since 1971 – it’s now an $11.5 million fixer-upper. A building in Georgia that’s home to two dolls, some birds, spare tires and asbestos – $52,000 in upkeep since 1991. Right in the middle of an active VA medical center in Illinois, a building sits empty for 15 years. Empty unless you count the asbestos, lead paint, mold and a basement filled with putrid-smelling septic water. $20,000 per year for maintenance, $500,000 to tear down, and hazardous materials removal alone would cost $426,000 – such a bargain!
As promised in his May 31 State of the VA report, Veterans Affairs Secretary, Dr. David J. Shulkin, has announced his plan to demolish, sell or reuse 430 vacant and 735 underused buildings.
“We owe it to the American taxpayer to apply as much of our funding as possible to helping Veterans,” said Dr. Shulkin. “Maintaining vacant buildings makes no sense and we’re working as quickly as possible to get them out of our inventory.” VA has started disposal or a reuse process on 71 buildings already. Within the next six months, another 71 will be sold, destroyed or reused. The remaining 288 will be gone within the next two years.
“On average our buildings are more than 60 years old, with only half being built since 1920,” said Shulkin. VA’s ageing real estate portfolio includes 449 buildings from the Revolutionary and Civil wars, 96 that are currently vacant. There are 591 that date back to World War I, with only 450 currently being used. In total, US taxpayers spend $25 million a year just to maintain over 1,100 vacant or underused VA owned buildings. “$18 billion would be required to fully remediate our buildings now, including structural, seismic, electrical and mechanical improvements that need to be done,” according to Shulkin.
Over the last four years, VA’s capital funding budget has averaged about $2 billion per year. The VA’s capital funding needs for the next 10 years tops $51 billion, which is significantly more than the anticipated $16 – $26 billion funding level.
There are several factors that drive up the capital needs of the VA. Veterans Health Administration facilities are older buildings – five times older than the average building age of the US’s hospital system – and need significant repairs. The VHA Facilities Condition Assessment found that VHA facilities average a C- score, which means they are nearing the end of its useful life. More than 70 percent of VHA maintenance costs comes from infrastructures that are given a D rating, which means they are at the end of their useful life.
Another issue is VA facilities don’t match the current models of care. The majority of VHA hospitals were designed when care was focused on inpatient treatments. Over the past eight years, Veteran inpatient bed days of care have declined nearly ten percent, while outpatient clinic services have grown more than 40 percent. As a result, VHA’s capital needs fall in a broad range of categories, including adequate facility condition, providing sufficient and appropriate space for Veteran care and upgrading infrastructure. As VA’s buildings age and care continues to shift to the outpatient setting, the size of the capital need could continue to grow.
The VA is taking steps to improve its capital program. A new Facility Condition Assessment Report has indicated several recommendations that could result in an overall savings of up to 40 percent or about $38 billion over the next 10 years.
Maybe the VA can start with a building at the Dayton Medical Center in Ohio. Built in 1870, this 325 square foot building used to be a home for monkeys. It’s been empty for a while, but the VA is still paying to keep up the maintenance on this pink, octagonal little building.