- Associated Press - Saturday, April 18, 2015

AURORA, Colo. (AP) - The Veterans Affairs Department expects to spend about $340 million to buy medical equipment and train staff for its new Denver hospital, on top of the estimated $1.73 billion to build the facility, officials said Saturday.

The $340 million also includes patient beds and furniture, VA spokeswoman Elaine Buehler said.

The costs are known as activation expenses and are budgeted separately from construction costs, she said. Congress has already allocated some of the money, she said.

The Denver hospital, under construction in suburban Aurora, has become a major embarrassment for the VA because of construction cost overruns, separate from the activation expenses.

The hospital won’t be finished until 2017. Last year, the VA said it would be done in 2015 and cost $630 million to build.

The VA blames a flawed design process and other problems. An internal investigation is underway.

The department has asked Congress for an additional $830 million to finish the project and said it needs the money soon to avoid a shutdown. The VA says it has spent most of the money already allocated.

Work on the hospital is still underway, but at a scaled-back pace. The Army Corps of Engineers, which is taking over day-to-day oversight of the project, is negotiating a new contract with the builder, Kiewit-Turner. The original contract was voided after a panel of judges agreed with Kiewit-Turner that the hospital couldn’t be built as planned for $630 million.

Kiewit-Turner halted work after that ruling but resumed under an interim contract.

About 650 construction workers and 180 managers are busy at the site on most weekdays, said Chris Bantner, Kiewit-Turner’s managing partner for the project. That’s down from about 1,200 last year, before the contract dispute.

A handful of workers were at the 31-acre site Saturday when officials took reporters and photographers on a tour. Some of the buildings already had painted interior walls, but others were a honeycomb of metal framing and dangling wires. Huge sheets of white plastic cover some of the outside walls.

“We continue to make progress,” said Kevin Lindsey, the VA’s project executive for the hospital. “You can’t see this from outside the curtain.”

The hospital complex will have as many as 12 buildings and three parking garages strung out along a long, narrow parcel of land. Most of the buildings branch off from a gently curving, 1,100-foot-long central concourse with glass and steel walls that soar as high as 70 feet.

At a hearing in Washington on Wednesday, some members of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee derided the concourse as an extravagant atrium. But Lindsey said two main entrances to the concourse will limit the distance veterans have to walk to any part of the hospital, and the concourse carries essential utilities to each building.

Officials said the height of the concourse provides natural light.

Lindsey said some expensive features of the hospital are mandated by federal law, such as a 1.5-million-gallon water tank, a wastewater holding tank and several backup generators that would allow the hospital to keep running for several days if a disaster severed utility service.

To finish the hospital, the VA wants to pull money from a $5 billion fund that Congress set up to improve access to health care after disclosures that some veterans endured long waits for appointments. Some members of the House and Senate oppose that idea.

Rep. Mike Coffman and Sen. Cory Gardner, both Colorado Republicans, have introduced legislation that would funnel the VA’s multimillion-dollar bonus budget to the Denver hospital until construction is complete.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has scheduled a field hearing on the hospital in Aurora on Friday.

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Follow Dan Elliott at https://twitter.com/DanElliottAP

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