- Associated Press - Sunday, February 16, 2014

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - Long awaited but beset by delays, the VA Medical Center at Lake Nona likely will not see its first patients before 2015.

From the outside, the sprawling 65-acre campus, the centerpiece of the Medical City, seems close to completion, but inside, large areas remain unfinished. Some areas have walls that are just frames without wallboard. Other areas are carpeted and painted, ready for equipment to be moved in.

Construction was originally set to be completed in 2012, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Now it is tapped for near the end of this year, about six years after the Oct. 24, 2008, groundbreaking ceremony.

“That date has been changing monthly,” said Lawrence Tucker, activations coordinator for the medical center. “The latest date the contractor has given is December fifth.”

It will then take about three to four months to get furniture and equipment installed before the first patients can be seen in the outpatient center. It could take even longer before any patients are admitted to the hospital.

But the VA said that it is in constant negotiations with the contractor, Brasfield and Gorrie, and the schedule could be adjusted again.

The VA faults Brasfield and Gorrie for the delays, and the company blames “VA incompetent administration” and “numerous design changes” for the slowdown.

Veterans said that regardless of who’s to blame, they have been waiting long enough.

“There is a sense of anticipation, but there is not surety,” said Bill Vagianos, president of the Brevard Veterans Memorial Center.

The $665 million, 1.2-million-square-foot complex will have a 134-bed medical center that will serve veterans in a 10-county area, including nearly 70,000 from Brevard. It also includes a 120-bed nursing home and an outpatient clinic, and will offer most health care services except open-heart surgery, neurosurgery and transplants.

The VA Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction said it is on budget and was even able to return $40 million from the project.

Brasfield and Gorrie paints quite a different picture.

“A project such as this requires full and open cooperation of all parties, however, the Lake Nona project has been seriously hampered by delays and inefficiencies resulting from the VA’s incompetent administration, numerous design changes, critical information and failure to make crucial and timely decisions,” the company said in a statement.

“Because of changes, there are $65 million to $150 million in work that the VA has not paid Brasfield and Gorrie for,” the company said. “This has led to delays in payments to subcontractors, but Brasfield and Gorrie is paying their subcontractors out of pocket.”

Vagianos said that veterans he hears from are resigned to the fact the VA is going to do things its way, and they will just have to wait.

“It’s ludicrous,” he said. “We still don’t have a hospital.”

Some veterans from Brevard and elsewhere in Central Florida now have to travel to Tampa or West Palm Beach VA medical centers for treatment. The Lake Nona campus is just 37 miles from Cocoa and 62 miles from Melbourne.

“I used to go to Palm Beach,” said Rafael Rodriguez, a retired Army veteran from Palm Bay. “When the economy went bad and gas prices skyrocketed I stopped doing that.”

Rodriguez, who suffers from lung and back problems, said the VA Viera Outpatient Clinic now has a lung specialist, which also keeps him from having to go to West Palm Beach for treatment.

Rodriquez, 64, who volunteers as a service officer at a Disabled American Veterans in Melbourne, said the new hospital will be very convenient for him and many other veterans in Brevard.

“The opening of that hospital is going to ease up the workload here,” he said of the Viera clinic. “I’m looking forward to it. It will be great.”

Partsof the campus are already completed and in use, including a rehabilitation center for homeless veterans, a chapel and the Community Living Center, a 120-bed nursing home and rehabilitation center. A separate project on the campus, the Central Florida Memorial Park, was dedicated on Veterans Day.

Patients have been moved into the Community Living Center.

The completed portions highlight design features far more pleasant than utilitarian VA facilities built in the 20th century.

In some areas gentle curves have replaced flat walls. Nurses’ work stations are out of view from hallways. The atrium lobby features live palm trees.

A warehouse on the campus is connected to the hospital through a tunnel allowing supplies to be moved without ever coming into view of patients and visitors or disrupting traffic flow in the main corridors. Covered walkways connect buildings, most of which give a view of a lake in a conservation area on the south side of the campus. Gardens within the buildings have outdoor seating areas.

“This is moving away from that institutional stuff,” Tucker said. “Patients and their families can get out of the institution and relax out here. You have to have this pleasant environment.”

In the Community Living Center rehabilitation wing, Laurie Brown proudly shows off equipment with which she helps veterans with physical therapy.

“Our veterans are getting the most state-of-the-art equipment,” Brown said. “It is much better than what we ever had in the private sector.”

Brown said that though she has many family members who served in the military, she had not fully grasped the sacrifices veterans make until she started working for the VA.

“I think I have a much better appreciation for our guys who served,” she said.

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Information from: Florida Today (Melbourne, Fla.), http://www.floridatoday.com