- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2014

On the heels of reports that negligence at the Veterans Affairs Department may have had fatal consequences for ailing veterans, the department is facing new headaches on another front — construction.

Specifically, the price tag of a new medical center in Denver had doubled as the project has achieved the dubious distinction as the longest-running medical facility construction project in the VA’s building portfolio.

The budget for the facility was first estimated at $328 million in 2004, but now that has more than doubled to $800 million in 2012 — with the potential for even more increases still.

And the time frame has grown along with the cost, pushed back more than a year to where completion currently stands at May 2015.

“VA’s primary contractor on the project has expressed concerns that the project will ultimately cost more to complete and that a completion date of May 2015 is no longer realistic based on schedule delays,” said Lorelei St. James, the director for physical infrastructure issues for the Government Accountability Office.

The problems have angered Colorado state lawmakers anxious to see the facility up and running.

“We will not ask our veterans to wait any longer than absolutely necessary for this hospital,” said Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat. “Through their service and sacrifice, they’ve earned the best medical care our country can offer, and every effort must be taken to deliver that care as promised. Anything less is simply not acceptable.”

For now allowing construction costs to run rampant in addition to the delays for veterans, this week’s Washington Times’ Golden Hammer for fiscal waste, fraud and abuse goes to the Veterans Affairs Department.

The troubles at the Denver project are not unique. In 2013, the GAO estimated that the VA’s four largest construction projects — in Colorado and three other sites — were each on average $366 million over budget and 35 months behind schedule.

Glenn Haggstrom, the VA official in charge of the department’s construction, said the agency has been improving how it handles large building projects.

“While there have been challenges with this project, we have undertaken a comprehensive review of the major construction program and have taken numerous actions to strengthen and improve our execution of VA’s ongoing major construction projects,” he said.

While the VA has overhauled how it handles construction, the GAO said, few of the changes have so far worked their way into the Colorado medical center project.

VA officials said one problem with the original plan in Denver was that it was to share a medical center with the University of Colorado Hospital, but that designs had to be revamped once that agreement fell through. Likewise, construction was delayed because officials discovered they had to remove asbestos and replace wiring in pre-existing buildings that were being renovated.

The VA meanwhile has also pointed fingers at the contracting firm building the medical center, and the two are involved in litigation to determine the exact boundaries of their agreement and the money involved.

But several watchdogs, Congress included, are still laying blame on the VA itself.

According to Kirk Rosa, the state commander for the Colorado Veterans of Foreign Wars, the current Denver medical center was built in 1948 and has outlived its usefulness.

“It is important for VA to become more efficient at facility construction,” Mr. Rosa said. “Veterans have expectations that medical facilities will be available when VA first states what the completion date will be.”

Once completed, the Denver center is expected to include 182 in-patient beds, a 30-bed community living center and a 30-bed spinal-cord injury center.

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