art in VA hospital
Credit: Courtesy of Veterans Affairs

The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has taken a lot of heat lately about using money to purchase art for its hospitals and other facilities. Last week, Gail Collins, in a column in the New York Times, joined in the pile-on. While Collins defended the VHA and opposed its privatization, writing that veterans “are satisfied” with its services and that “the care is in many cases excellent,” she couldn’t resist a jab at the VHA for spending $670,000 on two sculptures that were placed in a blind rehabilitation center. Her conclusion? “Veterans healthcare for everybody! But maybe with less art.”

The issue of spending on art first emerged last year when Congressman Jeff Miller (R. FLA) , Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs, a staunch advocate of VHA privatization, lambasted the VHA for spending $483,000 for a sculpture in a hospital courtyard. For Miller, whom Donald Trump has promised to appoint to the post of Secretary of Veterans Affairs should he be elected, the issue was not the quality of the art used at VHA facilities but the fact that the VHA was using taxpayer money to spend on art, period. Miller called such spending “wanton and abusive.”

Miller’s critique was faithfully broadcast by the mainstream media, which ignored several crucial facts – how much of the budget such spending represents, as well as the medical utility of art in hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

Between 2010-2016, the VHA has spent $5.4 million dollars on commissioned art work for its over 1500 facilities. This sum represents an infinitesimal sliver of the VHAs budget over that same period. The $483,000 Miller highlighted is, for example, 0.000007% of the VHA’s $65 billion-dollar budget in 2017.

But what is perhaps most disturbing about this focus on VHA art is its failure to understand why the VHA uses art in its hospitals and other facilities as well as the double messages the media and Congress send to VHA leaders, employees, and veterans themselves.

Art in the VHA is used in places like the newly constructed VHA facility in Las Vegas, which commissioned several soothing water sculptures to help allay the anxiety of veterans with mental and physical illnesses as they wait for appointments. It is used to conceal medical equipment in hospices that care for dying veterans, in nursing homes where aging veterans will live out their lives, and in medical facilities like the Blind Rehabilitation Centers Collins mentions in her column. In fact, most of the veterans served in such rehabilitation facilities are not totally blind but rather visually impaired. They can, in fact, see the sculptures she complains about as can their family and friends and staff who care for them.

VHA facilities use art because scientific research has documented that art enhances patient healing and can even reduce hospital stays and thus save money.

This use of art is widely promoted when such art is used in private sector hospitals. The National Institute of Biotechnology Information (NCBI) website, for example, displays a peer reviewed article on the Cleveland Clinic’s art collection, lauding its positive use of art in medicine. “Fine art is good medicine. It comforts, elevates the spirit, and affirms life and hope,” author Jennifer Finkel notes.

The Wall Street Journal similarly praised the use of art in private sector hospitals. One of the hospitals highlighted for its pioneering work in the field was The Cleveland Clinic and its use of the work of the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, whose works sell for a princely sum.

The Cleveland Clinic, whose CEO Delos “Toby” Cosgrove, served as the Vice Chairman of the VA Commission on Care, proudly advertises its arts program on its websites. “The mission of the Cleveland Clinic Art Program is to enrich, inspire and enliven our patients, visitors, employees and community and to embody the core values of the institution: collaboration, quality, integrity, compassion, and commitment.” The website offers a virtual tour of its permanent – and very expensive –collection. The Henry Ford Health System, whose CEO Nancy Schlichting served as Chairwoman of the VA Commission on Care also boasts about its Healing Arts. Any art used in private sector hospitals is also purchased with the help of taxpayer money in the form of Medicare and Medicaid payments to those institutions. As far as can be documented, neither the Cleveland Clinic, Henry Ford Health System or any other private sector hospital has ever been asked to shut down its art exhibits because of the misuse of taxpayer dollars.

Quite the contrary. On Wednesday, September 8th, when both Schlichting and Cosgrove, appeared at the House Veterans Affairs Committee meeting on the Commission report on the future of the VA, they received nothing but respectful comments from Miller and other Committee members. In fact, both institutions were held up as precisely the kind of healthcare system veterans deserve and that the VHA should emulate.

There is a lot of talk about failures in leadership at the VHA, and surely they are many. But what kind of messages and guidance do they receive from their Congressional overseers and media watchdogs? They are asked to emulate the private sector, which can apparently do no wrong, but when the VHA either leads or follow practices in the private sector they are castigated for their efforts.

Art anyone?

Suzanne Gordon

Suzanne Gordon is the author of The Battle for Veterans' Healthcare: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Policy Making and Patient Care and the forthcoming Wounds of War: Veterans' Healthcare in the Era of Privatization.