Another day, another scandal for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
While wounded American service members received substandard medical care, and war veterans suffering from PTSD had to wait half a year or more for appointments, the VA spent $20 million on artwork between 2004 and 2014, according to a new report by Open the Books, a government spending watchdog, and Cox Media.
Among the commissioned art pieces are a $1 million sculpture for the courtyard of a VA facility in Palo Alto, California; $330,000 for a glass art sculpture; $21,000 for an artificial Christmas tree; and $280,000 to decorate a parking garage at the Palo Alto facility with dots and dashes of Morse code that light up.
The Morse code project, which artist Ray King dubbed "Horizon," includes quotes from Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt translated into Morse code. The artwork was intended to honor blind war veterans, but as critics have pointed out, blind veterans cannot see the installation.
Lawmakers directed the VA to stop spending money on artwork in 2015 after the House Veterans Affairs Committee learned more than $6 million had been spent on art installations at Palo Alto alone.
Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk wrote to Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald to impose a moratorium on the VA spending money on art.
“The VA has not taken the directive over a year ago to stop excessive, non-veteran spending on artwork," the Republican lawmaker told ABC News.
In a statement, the VA didn't back down from criticism, saying the agency's commissioning of artwork was part of its goal of "providing comprehensive health care" for veterans.
"Artwork is one of the many facets that create a healing environment for our nation’s veterans," the statement read. "We want an atmosphere that welcomes them to VA facilities, shows them respect and appreciation, honors them for their service and sacrifice and exemplifies that this is a safe place for them to receive their care."
“We don’t want our hospitals looking like the inside of prisons,” Louis Celli, director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation at the American Legion, wrote in a statement.
The criticism leveled at the VA comes after reports of widespread negligence in the system, first revealed publicly in 2014. The resulting scandal -- and press attention -- revealed that VA staffers falsified schedules to make it appear as though veterans were receiving primary care appointments within 14 days, which is the VA's target.
Documents showed that the VA paid out $143 million in bonuses to staffers in 2014, and that managers routinely instructed those under them to alter records to meet bonus requirements, according to CBS News. Meanwhile, at least 40 who were supposed to receive care at a Phoenix VA facility died while waiting for care, according to the resulting investigation.
Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, is the first female combat veteran to serve as a U.S. senator. In May, Ernst introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill that would forbid the VA from spending any more money on artwork until the VA works through the appointment backlog that has left thousands of veterans waiting months -- and in some cases more than a year -- for care.
Although the amendment wasn't passed, Ernst said at the time that she will keep pushing for tighter regulations on VA spending, reports the Washington Free Beacon.
“It is imperative that our country lives up to the promises made to our veterans, and to ensure they receive a quality of care that we can all be proud of," Ernst said.