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COVID-19 has brought to light the importance of our essential workers. Each and every day, they get up and go to work to keep our country moving. 

But right now, there aren’t enough of these front line workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VA is also suffering from “severe” custodial and cleaning staff shortages, which is putting the lives of our veterans at risk during a global pandemic

Per usual, the VA is trying to shift blame, saying, “several factors, including complex hiring practices, lower wages than the private sector, and an increased workload due to COVID-19,” have led to staff shortages.

Folks, this is alarming.

Ensuring sanitary conditions and practicing good hygiene is absolutely critical to the safety and health of our veterans and their caregivers, especially during COVID-19, which has claimed the lives of nearly 2,000 VA patients and more than 40 VA employees

But staff shortages at the VA has been a problem long before this pandemic. VA facilities have been cited for “inconsistent levels of cleanliness” and “lack of cleanliness.”

While they should have been responding to these warnings and taking action to provide for the safety of our nation’s veterans, the VA has been focusing on cleaning up its public appearance, according to a new analysis by Open the Books

In fact, the VA public affairs staff size increased by 25 percent since 2012, with the department spending more than $30 million for 329 public affairs officers. The VA is also paying almost $14 million for 181 interior decorators and over $9 million on 189 gardeners. Nearly $20 million of Iowa taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars were even spent on artwork to decorate VA buildings.

This is the federal agency that is supposed to care for our nation’s heroes, and instead we’re focused on gardens and decorations? Give me a break. 

When I attempted to address these expenditures, Congress instead chose to sweep the waste under the rug. Are you surprised?  

Complicating the problem, the VA’s spending records are a mess, littered with inaccuracies and incomplete information, making it difficult—if not impossible—to know how the department is spending taxpayer dollars. 

Clearly, the VA needs to put as much and more emphasis on cleaning up its actual facilities – and its books – as it does on its public appearance.

That’s why I am giving my July 2020 Squeal Award to both the VA and Congress for failing to clean house, literally and figuratively. It’s also why I am urging the department to come clean about how it is spending your taxpayer dollars.

Joni Ernst

Author: Joni Ernst

Joni Ernst, a native of Red Oak and a combat veteran, represents Iowa in the United States Senate.