The Veterans Affairs Department could save $25 million a year if it closed outdated and unused facilities, the VA's leader said Wednesday.
As part of an ongoing lobbying effort to gain more budget flexibility, VA Secretary Robert McDonald has been pressing Congress for permission to dispose of 10 million square feet of space that the department doesn't use or thinks it does not need.
At a military and family forum in Washington, D.C., McDonald asked veterans and military advocates to support the effort, which he said faces an uphill battle from lawmakers.
"We need Congress to get the courage to allow us to close these spaces so we can make better use of the money we have," McDonald said.
The VA's inventory includes hundreds of historic, aging or blighted buildings. Among those popular with veterans is the historic Battle Mountain Sanitarium in Hot Springs, South Dakota, a facility that once served Civil War veterans of the battles of Gettysburg and Antietam and is part of the VA Black Hills Health Care System.
But other buildings, like a former quartermaster's office in Minneapolis, have been vacant for years and fallen into disrepair.
According to VA, it has 336 buildings that are vacant or less than half-occupied. The money it takes to manage these properties — $25 million — could hire 200 registered nurses or pay for nearly 150,000 primary care visits and more.
But proposing to close buildings is a tough sell.
"Members of Congress and others don't like us to close things in their geographic regions," McDonald said.
In a hearing earlier this year, Florida Rep. Corrine Brown, the senior Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, voiced the reticence felt by many lawmakers about shuttering VA facilities.
But she also expressed support for a concept similar to a base realignment and closure plan.
"We support closing some of the VA facilities ... just as long as you don't close any in Florida," she joked. "That's kind of the mentality of the members of Congress. So as we work through it, we've got to keep in mind, it is a team effort."
McDonald has pressed for more flexibility, not only to control VA real estate but also to shift money between programs, to cover a budget crunch related to increases in medical costs and disability claims as well to support new construction and hire more personnel.
In the past year, the VA has added 1,100 physicians, 3,500 nurses and increased office hours at some facilities by 12 percent, to include nights and weekends, according to the VA.
But the department needs resources to build additional capacity and ensure it will be prepared to care for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans in the future, McDonald said.
"VA is the canary in the coal mine," he said. "We see the problems with American medicine before the rest of the country because we are the largest integrated health care system in the country. We see the effects of the aging population before everyone else and need to get ahead of this now."
Staff writer Leo Shane III contributed to this report.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.