But when the administration submitted its next VA construction budget in February, the project received a huge upgrade. It called for building an entirely new hospital for $560 million. And in one year, the hospital’s priority moved to second out of 61 construction projects.
A House Republican staffer, who asked not to be named, said colleagues were stunned when they saw the switch. The source said there had been no hearing for such a large project before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
When House aides met with a VA official, he gave vague answers on how a new hospital got added to the budget, this source said.
The VA public affairs office, in a statement issued to The Times, said that “after rigorous evaluation of the current facility in Omaha, the project for a replacement facility moved up on the VA’s priority list.”
“The evaluation process involved numerous site visits by VA senior staff and data-driven examinations to check the project against multiple standards. The replacement facility will address space shortages and create a safer environment for our veteran patients,” the VA statement said.
The department said the project, which now includes demolishing the current hospital, was given the higher rating because the original plan “did not address the majority of facility condition assessment deficiencies at the Omaha campus nor the space and safety deficiencies.”
Mr. Thompson said that after Mr. Obama’s first VA construction budget was presented last May, the veterans agency released the next month a feasibility study done by a engineering firm which showed deficiencies with the existing hospital.
The Republican staffer said no one is arguing the aging hospital does not need major repairs, as called for in the first budget.
When the new construction budget came out last month, Mr. Nelson put out a statement the same day praising the initial $56 million in 2011 dedicated to planning and design.
“The president’s 2011 budget recognizes that the current hospital’s serious infrastructure deficiencies must be addressed,” Mr. Nelson said. “The VA’s own study released last summer helped make the case when it found seriously outdated surgery facilities, aging infrastructure and significant space deficiencies at the medical center originally built in the 1950s.”
Mr. Nelson said the planning could lead to a new hospital. But the VA statement to The Times went further, describing the project as “new construction of health-care space” and “demolition of the existing main hospital.”