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VA Priorities Questioned

Officials in charge of the nation's veterans hospitals are facing a tough question these days: Are the hospital buildings getting more attention than the people in them?

Reports, CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr, the facilities are aging, the number of patients has dropped by 58 percent over the last decade, and the Department of Veterans Affairs is on the spot to justify why it continues to operate 4,700 buildings on 18,000 acres of land.

They're spending over $1 million a day in supporting this obsolete infrastructure," complains Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., a member of the Veterans Affairs and chairman of its Oversight and Investigations subcommittee. "That's $1 million a day that could be spent on veterans' health care, that's not spent on veterans' health care."

A report to Congress last month urged the VA to reduce the number of underused, inefficient or obsolete buildings and reinvest the savings in modern facilities closer to where the veterans live. The VA says it's already doing that.

"We've closed 55 percent of our acute-care beds," Dr. Kenneth Kizer of the Veterans Administration told CBS News. "There's no healthcare system in the country that has even come close to right sizing the way that we have."

However, critics say the VA isn't moving quickly enough. Kizer points to strong resistance from labor unions worried about job losses and from powerful veterans groups. Stephen Backhus, who investigated the hospitals, agrees.

"People see the buildings as a federal government commitment and a sign of support for veterans," Backhus says, And they're afraid that if those hospitals go away, so will the care."

Everyone agrees the solution is a facility like the new VA clinic in Los Angeles which offers modern facilities and outpatient care. The VA is also being urged to offer care in private hospitals.

"They can purchase the care in some cases where it's closer to the veteran," said Backhus.

With one out of four veterans' health care dollars now going just to care for aging facilities, the VA's critics are running out of patience. The veteran population is aging and requiring more long-term care. And the veterans could put the money to good use.

Right now that money, Everett says, "is going down a black hole, never to be used again."