WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials plan to close at least 430 vacant buildings over the next two years and freeze new office space for Veterans Benefits Administration efforts as part of an effort to reduce the department's footprint and save millions annually.
The plan, previewed by VA Secretary David Shulkin at a reporter roundtable Tuesday morning, comes after two years of complaints from department officials that their current infrastructure is too bloated and in need of downsizing.
"We owe it to the American taxpayer to apply as much of our funding as possible to helping veterans," he said in a statement later in the day. "Maintaining vacant buildings, including close to 100 from the Revolutionary War and Civil War, makes no sense, and we're working as quickly as possible to get them out of our inventory."
VA officials have identified more than 1,100 VA structures nationwide that are unused, underused or unusable. In total, maintenance on the facilities costs about $7 million a year.
The VBA freeze is expected to save even more. Officials are predicting almost $16 million in annual savings from that move, as department officials will "maximize space management by leasing or eliminating office space nationwide."
That move is possible thanks to "a robust telework program and the digitization of claim files" in recent years, according to the official VA announcement.
Shulkin said planners have already begun work on 140 buildings to "dispose of them, destroy them, or give them back to the federal inventory." Others will be more difficult to manage.
For the older buildings, historic preservation rules stand in the way of jettisoning them from VA’s inventory.
"Even though they are buildings we aren’t using or are too old to use, they still have historic preservation status," Shulkin said. "I need to work with other federal agencies to get those properly addressed."
For another 700-plus buildings, local administrators will make decisions on adding new tenants to fill unused offices or downsizing to smaller nearby facilities.
The moves come as VA leaders spar with veterans groups over the future of the department and administration plans to allow more veterans to access private-sector physicians at the government’s expense.
Shulkin said creating duplicative services within VA medical facilities would be irresponsible, given the limited resources of the department and the growing demand for veteran-specific medical care.
But critics have said that trimming VA facilities and services too far back will undermine the entire system, and lead to substandard medical care for all veterans.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.