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The Best Way to Fix the West LA VA Campus

(Michael C is writing today on behalf of a group veterans who are working to fix some of the long-term problems plaguing the West LA VA Campus in Los Angeles. To learn more go to #VATheRightWay.org. Then please comment. There are only six days left. Today is one of Michael C’s public comments he’s submitted to the Veterans Affairs department.)

Every Veterans Day, a lot of people thank me for my service in the US Army. I’ve always wished I had a way for the people who are thanking me to give back. Well, this year I did: we have an opportunity to fundamentally change how the VA interacts with veterans in Los Angeles. Specifically, by fixing the West Los Angeles VA Campus.

The West LA VA Campus sits on land that was gifted to the VA for the benefit of Los Angeles veterans, specifically their housing and healthcare. Federal law mandates that VA land must be used for the benefit of those same veterans. A few years ago, a group of Los Angeles veterans sued the VA because the West LA Campus was being fundamentally mismanaged. Earlier this year, the VA settled the lawsuit.

As part of the settlement, for the next two weeks, the VA is collecting public comments on their plan to renovate and restore the West LA VA Campus. Many veterans, such as myself, believe that their plan is more of the same from a VA system that has failed veterans and has routinely abused this wonderful resource.

So I made my voice heard and offered a public comment And I encourage anyone reading to do the same. I want the VA to reestablish a board of governors to oversee the West LA Campus. Without this vital piece of oversight, the West LA VA Campus will continue to be mismanaged. Or worse.

Trust me, the mismanagement is real and not hyperbole on the part of veterans. Many citizens are aware of the general problems with the VA--for instance the average wait time for a veteran in Los Angeles in 176 days for an appointment, above the national average--but not aware of how the VA has inappropriately sub-leased the land on the West LA VA Campus. The VA profits off the land by renting it out to private companies like 20th Century Fox, Marriott Hotels and others. According to NPR, in the last twelve years, the VA has made between $28 and $40 million renting the land.

Of course, the VA isn’t even that good at trying to profit off the land. The Government Accountability Office estimated that millions of dollars of land use revenue went uncollected. In 2012, when they should have collected $1.5 million dollars, they only collected $700,000. And the VA also makes other long-term arrangements (called extended use leases) that drastically under-charge wealthy private organizations. For instance, the Brentwood school--a private institution that charges over $30,000 per year for elementary school--pays only $450,000 a year for its lease for a twenty acre sports facilities. My alma mater, UCLA, pays $5,000 a month to lease land for its baseball field. This is prime real estate in the heart of Brentwood that the VA rents for well below the current market rates.

But the worst part is that the money collected for these private institutions doesn’t even go to helping veterans. This despite a federal law insisting the VA use funds to pay for veteran health care.

Luckily, we have a chance to change this. As part of the terms of the settlement, the VA must present a plan to fix the issues facing the campus. And that plan must be approved by veterans. Personally, I wouldn’t sign off on the plan until the VA solves the fundamental governance issues. Unless the VA is responsible to veterans, it will not change.

An independent board of governors will give veterans a seat at the table. The only way to ensure that the VA doesn’t give away prime Los Angeles real estate in sweetheart deals is oversight by an independent board. The only way to ensure all leases benefit veterans is an independent board. The only way to address the concerns of veterans in the long term is an independent board.

The time to help veterans is now. After leaving the military, 51% of veterans don’t know where to get help. A huge number--nearly 37%--of veterans have considered suicide, and most don’t seek help. And California veterans have a 7.7% unemployment rate. We know that the VA can help prevent suicides, homelessness and unemployment; veterans just need to know where to go.

While this seems like a local issue, it isn’t. The West LA VA Campus, as the largest campus of its kind in America, can serve as a model for how to fundamentally change the VA. The lessons in governance we implement in LA can expand to Chicago, New York and other large VA campuses. If we can create a systems where veterans have a voice in changing the VA to truly serve their needs, the effects could be tremendous.

I have personally commented on the VA plan. Frankly, the plan is more of the same that veterans have come to expect from the VA in Los Angeles. I told the VA that I want to see an independent board of advisors (with veteran representation) overseeing the West LA VA Campus. I encourage all veterans and concerned citizens to join me. (Go to #VATheRightWay.org to learn more and provide a public comment.)