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Waste Not, Want Not

9:00 AM EDT on July 27, 2011

Some of you may have heard there is a some discussion going on in Washington that relates to debt and spending and tax rates for rich people job creators. I am just now learning about this since I was previously focused on the country's real problem of professional football players missing training camp.

As one would expect, fiscally agitating senator Tom Coburn is plopping himself right in the middle of this maelstrom. An on-again/off-again member of the "Gang of Six" tasked with creating a bipartisan solution to a crisis which will destroy the economy or save the economy — a prediction relying entirely on whether you like the president or not. Unsurprisingly, Coburn's input is almost exclusively to solve the situation with cutting of government waste. To prove it was out there, he investigated money the federal government was sending to his home state to determine how it was being misused. (Sidenote: I appreciate the honor of focusing on his own backyard, but wouldn't it have been better to look at the other 49 states where the "waste" is not directly helping his constituents?)

The result of his study was a report showing some of the more ludicrous uses of federal dollars within Oklahoma borders. According to our junior senator, money was wasted on things like anti-gang initiatives, anti-smoking campaigns and a school for American Indians (which was created in lieu of returning their land). Often in the report, Coburn will admit cultural value in the use of the funds, but not when the government is having trouble paying their bills.

One thing everyone can agree on, though, is hiring an interior designer for the Veteran Affairs Hospital is completely frivilous. Those are those people you see on HGTV gluing feathers to bathroom walls and rearranging furniture to improve the feng shui. What a complete waste of money!

Here is what the report says about it:

Oklahoma is home to over 330,000 veterans and has had a proud tradition of military service ever since its founding as a state in 1907. To care for them when they return home, the Department of Veterans Affairs has a well-trained staff of doctors and nurses.

With 16 locations to serve the health care needs of Oklahoma veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a significant footprint in Oklahoma. At these facilities, hundreds of doctors, nurses, and administrators serve with great distinction, often in very difficult circumstances. With thousands of new veterans returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, the urgency in providing comprehensive medical care continues to grow.

To the surprise of many, in the fall of 2010, the Veterans Medical Center in Muskogee, Oklahoma advertised for a new Interior Designer. The full-time, permanent position, classified as GS-11 ($60,000-$78,000) was eventually filled in early 2011.

This is just amazing. How can the government lose their priorities so much as to waste this money? It would be better to just burn that $60-78K, if it wasn't for the fact that it actually saves the government money overall. Yeah, you read that right.

Even if I hadn't made the joke about interior designers being the people on HGTV shows your mom watches on a loop, you probably would have jumped to the conclusion that they are the people who tell you how to make your house pretty. Admit it.

With the report, Coburn (or more likely his staffer who put it together) included the chapter about the VA designer confident you would assume they hired an Interior DECORATOR. That is not the same thing. An Interior DESIGNER has a degree, experience, and in depth knowledge of building codes and industrial requirements. The gulf between decorator and designer is the same as the difference between an accountant (a person with, maybe, a two year certificate from a tech school that can compile the cash counts at the end of the day) and a CPA (who has a degree from a five year program and has in-depth knowledge of tax law and FASB statements).

The interior decorator helps choose a sofa that compliments the wood work in the room, while an interior designer assures that an exam room has the proper spacing to perform the necessary procedures and that the required equipment and satisfactory furniture and lighting is available. Of course that's only important if you run hospitals or something.

Per Coburn's report:

With 16 locations to serve the health care needs of Oklahoma veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a significant footprint in Oklahoma.

Well, given that there are 16 locations in need of interior design services, that means someone has to do the work ... unless Coburn thinks the government should be out of the business of providing their veterans health care, which seems to be the opposite of his point. That means they either have to keep someone on staff and pay them $60 to $78k (a value, assuming this position is like every other government job, which is likely below market for a person of the experience level they require) or outsource it.

I contacted a local architecture firm that provides similar services and asked them what it would cost to provide the services as the contractor. With the assumption that the job could be done by a person with about ten years experience and no other architects would need to be brought in for consultation, they estimated it would be a minimum of $125K/year.

Of course, Coburn's concern was not just about money:

This news is astounding in light of the many more urgent needs facing the nation‘s health care system for veterans. ...one of the major challenges facing Oklahoma and VA hospitals nationwide is the retention and recruitment of health care staff.

The take away you are supposed to get from reading that is the VA is losing out on the necessary doctors and nurses because they are wasting their money on things like a single interior designer. Of course, this is ignoring the real reason such positions are not being filled. There is a real shortage of people to fill those positions and the people who do complete the necessary medical training are capable of making more money in private practice or in private hospitals with — wait for it — better facilities.

So, Coburn's intent is to save that (at max) $78,000 to distribute to 14 medical positions that have been sitting vacant for more than nine months and convince them to work in centers that are either further below standards or have spent an extra $125,000 to keep them up to code. You don't need a CPA, or even an accountant, to tell you that is a losing proposition.

And if he is this far off on defining waste in that chapter of his report, who's to say all of his examples aren't crap. Come to think of it, couldn't doing less to prevent gang activity and curtailing smoking cost the government even more in crime investigation and health care?

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