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The VA recently completed a new cemetery in Fargo, North Dakota, that was delayed five years.

The VA recently completed a new cemetery in Fargo, North Dakota, that was delayed five years. (VA)

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs is at least $17 million over budget and years behind schedule on multiple projects to build new veterans cemeteries, a federal watchdog reported this week.

The National Cemetery Administration, part of the VA, plans to create new cemeteries across the country in order to provide veterans with “reasonable access” for burial -- meaning that state or national cemeteries are within 75 miles of veterans’ homes.

About 8% of the country’s veterans don’t have reasonable access, especially in rural areas, the VA said. The agency missed its goal of reducing that to 4% by the end of 2017, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Tuesday.

The GAO found the VA “has made limited progress in implementing its plan to create burial access and is years behind its original schedule for opening new cemeteries.”

In one instance, a cemetery planned for San Francisco was set to open in 2015 but was pushed back until 2027, the report shows. A rural cemetery planned for Elko, Nevada, was supposed to be completed in 2017, but the VA now says only that it would open “in a future year.”

Other delayed projects are in Los Angeles; New York City; Indianapolis; Chicago; Rhinelander, Wisconsin; Twin Falls, Idaho; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Machias, Maine; and Cedar City, Utah. The VA recently completed a new cemetery in Fargo, North Dakota, that was delayed five years.

Officials with the National Cemetery Administration told the GAO they “overstated” their expectations to complete the projects in 2017 and cited a lengthy process for requiring land, and designing and constructing the cemeteries.

The GAO also found issues with the VA’s cost estimates for the projects. The agency estimated seven rural cemetery projects would cost $7 million total. By August 2018, the estimates had increased to nearly $24 million – an overrun of more than 200%.

The GAO discovered officials didn’t closely follow the federal process for making cost estimates.

In response to the report, Pamela Powers, VA Chief of Staff, wrote that she disagreed with the GAO that the agency had made limited progress in increasing veterans’ access to burial.

The National Cemetery Administration “has made significant progress in this regard,” Powers wrote. An estimated 503,961 more veterans will have access to state or national cemeteries by fiscal 2022, she said. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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