WASHINGTON -- There's a $483,000 rock sculpture that's layered into cubes outside the mental health center at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., that's meant to evoke "a sense of transformation, rebuilding and self-investigation," according to designers. It's part of a renovated $1.3 million courtyard.
There's an art installation on the side of a parking garage that displays quotes by Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt in Morse code, at a cost of $285,000. It lights up.
In what's turning into the latest fight over VA spending, Congress this month is criticizing and questioning the overwhelmed and understaffed Department of Veterans Affairs for spending millions on art work on its hospital campuses.
Altogether, VA Palo Alto Health Care System has spent at least $6.3 million on art and consulting services. The costs come to $4,190,356 at the Palo Alto Medical Center, $1,879,521 at the Monterey Health Care Center and $280,000 in other budgeted projects.
There's a long history of the federal government spending millions on art at federal buildings. The GSA Art in Architecture Program oversees the commissioning of artworks for new federal buildings nationwide. Its website says that "these artworks enhance the civic meaning of federal architecture and showcase the vibrancy of American visual arts. Together, the art and architecture of federal buildings create a lasting cultural legacy for the people of the United States."
Congress has only recently cracked down on the amount they spend on oil paintings of themselves and agency heads with the "Eliminate Government-funded Oil-painting Act," passed in 2013 after media outlets reported that more than $200,000 had been spent on oil portraits of congressional lawmakers and agency heads.
A 2008 Washington Post analysis of 30 portrait projects found that the costs ranged from $7,500 to nearly $50,000 apiece and that most of the contracts were awarded with no competitive bidding process.
Separately, a Washington Times report said the federal government spent $180,000 in 2011 on portraits, including paintings of non-Cabinet officials, such as former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, that cost at least $40,000 apiece.
But the debate over the price of art in VA hospitals comes as Republicans in Congress have stepped up scrutiny of the scandal-tainted agency's spending, with problems that include covering up patient wait times for veterans seeking care to the troubled $1. 7 billion Denver hospital project that exploded in price from an initial estimate of $328 million.
This fall, VA's problems have continued as the agency's inspector general found that two senior executives had misused their positions to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars when they moved to new positions. The agency also used transfers to make sure they could override a freeze on raises.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, called the rock sculpture "wanton and abusive spending practices" by the agency.
VA officials say they are budget-strapped and understaffed to serve a growing population of both aging veterans and millions returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The agency has faced the largest scandal in its history over the fudging of wait times for veterans seeking urgent care for post-traumatic stress, cancer and other health concerns.
The VA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the criticism.
"It is simply beyond me why VA would choose to pay to complete the Denver project by cutting medical services and medical facility dollars but not the exorbitant conference spending or bloated relocation expenses or art," Miller said.