Rep. Howard Waxman says the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy is impenetrable. His opponent says Waxman hasn't tried hard enough.
By Steve Lopez
Los Angeles Times
September 26, 2012
Bob Rosebrock and I sat under a tree on the West Los Angeles Department of Veterans Affairs property, discussing his pet peeve: How the country is failing its veterans. There was plenty to talk about.
Nearby was the gleaming $253-million California Veterans Home, opened with great fanfare more than two years ago, with local politicians lining up to take bows. But today, in a region with an estimated 8,000 homeless veterans, many of whom can't get access to care, roughly four-fifths of the 396 rooms are empty.
The federally financed, state-run Veterans Home will soon begin adding 10 to 15 veterans a month until it's full, a California Department of Veterans Affairs spokesperson said, telling me that a gradual rollout was the plan all along. The place should be full by 2014, she added. By then we may be fighting yet another war.
It's this kind of grinding bureaucracy that brings Rosebrock and a small band of demonstrators out to the VA property every Sunday.
"As long as I'm able," he said, he'll wage war on "the mistreatment of our veterans."
It's the feds, though, not state officials, who really get Rosebrock worked into a lather. Though some housing and other services exist on the 400-acre VA campus, many buildings have been abandoned or under-utilized for decades, and land the former owners intended for veteran services is leased for athletic activities and commercial enterprises, such as a car-rental firm and a film company.
Of course, this is an old, too-familiar story. But now -- with an already-stressed VA ill-equipped to handle thousands of returning vets with mental and physical disabilities -- there's a bit of a twist.
Henry Waxman, the powerful, career member of Congress who represents the district, is running for reelection against Bill Bloomfield, an independent who wants to turn the care of vets into a campaign issue.
Either the Democratic Waxman isn't committed to improving services at the West L.A. VA, said Bloomfield, or he can't get anything done because he's part of a partisan Washington political culture that's ridiculously broken. Either way, Bloomfield suggested, it's unacceptable.
"It's beyond the pale," Bloomfield said, recalling a recent trip to the VA campus in which he saw well-maintained, privately used athletic facilities that are padlocked to keep the vets out.
Bloomfield noted that in a recent story on NPR, Waxman conceded he doesn't know how much money is raised by the VA from leasing property for private enterprise, nor does he know what that money is used for. The NPR story estimated the figure to be between $28 million and $40 million for the last 12 years.
"You can't tell me a 38-year member of Congress can't get an answer to a simple question," Bloomfield said.
Actually, Waxman told me, that's exactly the case.
"I don't have subpoena power," he said. He claimed that despite repeated demands, the VA has frustrated him time and again. He recently sent a letter to the agency asking for updated information on the leases.
"We still don't have the full story, and when you ask the L.A. VA, the story they have is different from the Washington VA story," Waxman said, calling the department exasperatingly dysfunctional.
As an example, he cited a 2009 agreement he helped broker to dedicate $20 million in VA funds for the rehab of a building to house homeless vets.
To date, the project has not begun.
Waxman's critics suggest he's part of the problem. John Keaveney, a Vietnam vet and retired pioneer in providing services to homeless veterans on the VA campus, said Waxman has had "a really hands-off approach to the VA," and he charged that neighborhood residential groups opposed to more services on the land have held sway over Waxman and other politicians.
Santa Monica Councilman Bobby Shriver had this to say:
"It's way past time for Mr. Waxman to make housing mentally disabled vets a real priority. He can build the housing immediately if he decides to do so."
Waxman, who disagrees that it's that simple, touted a program in which the VA has provided vouchers to place 60 mentally disabled vets into supportive housing.
But that's the problem -- 60 vets? There's no acceptable reason for it to take eons to serve the tiniest fraction of those who, after risking their lives in service to the country, come home mentally, physically or emotionally broken.
Flora Gil Krisiloff, a staffer for L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, speaks highly of Waxman and his efforts on vets but said it's hard for the congressman or anyone else to crack the impenetrable VA culture. Krisiloff said months-long efforts to increase the number of severely disabled vets in the voucher program to 120 have been thwarted by the VA, whose actions she called "unconscionable."
Waxman noted that he has acted to limit commercial development of the VA property and derail a GOP effort to sell the land, and he said his office has interceded in the cases of 200 veterans who came looking for help with housing and other needs after being frustrated by the VA, in some cases for years.
But he acknowledged that he has not "devoted" himself to veteran issues and doesn't have a particular vision for how to best use the VA property -- whether to rehab old structures or build anew, whether to create an encampment or focus on off-site housing. He noted that even veterans groups disagree on some of these issues, and even if there were a consensus, money would be scarce.
"I just want some leadership," he said, "and all I can do is push the people who have the ability to make some of these decisions."
Yes, some leadership would be nice, and given that this is the largest VA operation in the country, Waxman might do well to take on a bigger role.
Until someone does, Rosebrock intends to keep raising a ruckus out there.
"Many pay the ultimate price, and way too many are permanently disabled and end up homeless and destitute," Rosebrock said.
As he sees it, they served us, now we must serve them.