Poor care for veterans becomes campaign issue

Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman says the bureaucracy at the West L.A. Veterans Affairs center is impenetrable. His opponent says it's beyond the pale as veterans fight for funds, care and housing.

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.

Yes, four-fifths.

Henry Waxman: In the Sept. 26 Section A, a headline on a column about veterans’ care becoming an issue in a Westside congressional race referred to Rep. Howard Waxman. It should have said Rep. Henry Waxman.

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.



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