- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Obama administration has delivered another budget plum to Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson and the state of Nebraska, adding more than a half-billion dollars for a new veterans hospital in Omaha.

The move reverses a decision by Mr. Obama’s own Veterans Administration of a year ago, which called for repairing an existing hospital.

The Veterans Administration made the budget switch during internal deliberations in 2009 at a time when the White House was wooing the moderate Democrat to vote for President Obama’s health care overhaul bill.

Mr. Nelson was among the last of the Senate Democrats to sign on to the health bill, deciding to vote “yes” after securing special Medicaid payments for Nebraska in a deal known as the “Cornhusker Kickback.” Health care reform opponents have widely panned that deal.

At the time that deal was being made, Mr. Nelson was getting another boost from the VA as it formulated its next budget.

Jake Thompson, a spokesman for Mr. Nelson, rejected the idea the new hospital was awarded in exchange for the senator’s health care vote.

“It was never discussed,” Mr. Thompson said. “He wasn’t discussing the Omaha VA hospital in any relation to health care. The answer is no.”

The spokesman added that Mr. Nelson “has been advocating [a new hospital] with this administration, with the previous secretary of the VA and the current secretary of the VA. But in relation to health care, it wasn’t discussed at all. I think the VA’s own study was the principal reason it was moved up” on the construction priority list.

But Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, ranking Republican on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said, “This one doesn’t smell right or feel right.”

Mr. Buyer said testimony by VA officials to the Senate last August showed managers recommended renovation and some expansion of the existing Omaha site — not an entirely new hospital at a much higher cost.

Mr. Buyer told The Times he met with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and asked for a review.

“During a meeting with the secretary last week, I raised this issue, of which he was surprised,” Mr. Buyer said. “I think he was genuinely surprised.”

The Republican lawmaker said he told Mr. Shinseki “if the White House was involved and used political pressure in manipulating the priority list, then there is a problem.”

“I respect the integrity of Secretary Shinseki that he will conduct a review,” Mr. Buyer said.

When the Obama administration presented its first VA five-year construction budget in May 2009, it called for making $256 million in improvements to the existing hospital. It ranked the project No. 16 on a priority list, according to budget documents reviewed by The Washington Times.

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.”

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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