It’s no surprise that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) buys American – but its aggressive program to do business with military veterans, applied to the agency’s $1.8 billion share of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), commonly known as the Recovery Act, funds, has so far achieved astonishing results.
According to Fred Downs, chief procurement officer with the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), more than half of the VA’s stimulus funds are being spent with veteran-owned businesses. The type of work performed by contractors for the VA varies greatly; they design, build, and maintain the VA’s nationwide infrastructure: the buildings, vehicles, landscaping, energy/electrical systems, heating and cooling, information technology and communications, and other elements. Other than the direct services provided to veterans by the VA, such as medical care, counseling, and banking and lending, most of the services extended to veterans at VA facilities, such as meals and laundry, are provided by small businesses.
Because the federal government long ago realized that small businesses were the engine of the American economy – accounting for more than 99 percent of the nation’s employers, and about half the nation’s gross domestic product – it legislated mandatory goals for federal contracting with certain categories of small businesses. Within this system, the VA has been a model of success. In fiscal year 2008, it was one of only four federal agencies to meet its contracting goal with service-disabled veterans. Of those four, VA was far out in front, with 11.6 percent of its contracting dollars going to service-disabled veterans; the U.S. Department of Labor was a distant second with 4.3 percent.
More remarkable is the fact that though federal agencies have tools such as set-asides to allow non-competitive awarding of contracts to meet their contracting goals, the VA is competitively bidding its contract awards. As VA’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Finance, Ed Murray, explained, the agency was in some cases able to ensure a project ended up in a veteran’s hands by building a pool of veteran bidders: “While the project is still competitive,” he said, “veteran-owned businesses are competing with each other for the project and not other companies.”
An added bonus for veteran contractors who work on these projects is that all the VA’s Recovery Act dollars will, in some way, benefit other veterans by improving the facilities in which they receive medical care, infrastructure and systems, and the national cemeteries.
So far, the opportunities for small businesses within the VA’s Recovery Act package include:
- $601 million to the VHA, for non-recurring maintenance projects to correct, replace, upgrade, and modernize existing infrastructure and utility systems for VA medical centers;
- $150 million to hire 2,293 temporary claims processors to accelerate the handling of claims within the Veterans Benefits Administration; and
- $50 million for monument and memorial repairs to honor the final resting places maintained by the National Cemetery Administration.
The types of VA projects for which veteran businesses have competed include a wide range of services, including plumbing and electrical upgrades, emergency and operating room renovations and remodeling, and repaving parking lots.
According to Downs – the Vietnam veteran whose oft-repeated motto is “buy American; buy small business” – the VA’s ARRA dollars are opening the door wide for veteran contractors. “The majority of veteran business owners,” he said, “are craftsmen. They do quality work and receive good feedback. The ARRA funding is affording them work they might not otherwise have in the current economy – plus, it’s an opportunity to build a reputation and earn more work.”
For more information on contracting with the VA, visit Office of Acquisition, Logistics, and Construction or call (202) 461-8007.