- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 18, 2015

DENVER (AP) - Lawmakers demanded an explanation Wednesday for huge cost overruns at the new Denver veterans hospital, and some said VA executives should be fired.

But one Colorado veterans group said VA spending is under more scrutiny than weapons systems and suggested the price might not be as bad as expected.

The debate comes a day after the Veterans Affairs Department said the hospital would cost $1.73 billion, more than five times the initial estimate of $328 million. The 184-bed facility is under construction in suburban Aurora and will replace an outdated hospital in Denver.

VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson asked Congress to authorize an additional $930 million.

Colorado’s two senators and six of its seven House members pledged bipartisan support for completing the hospital, but Republican Rep. Ken Buck didn’t sign on.

“I’m not willing to spend one more dime until we hold people responsible for this outrageous error, that we find reforms at the VA and we do everything we can to reduce that number of $1.7 billion,” Buck said.

He said veterans deserve good care but the VA takes advantage of Congress’ goodwill.

“I want to see heads on the chopping block,” Buck said.

Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman said a request for more funding will have to be accompanied by proposals to change the VA. Coffman has long advocated putting another agency, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, in charge of VA construction.

“It’s not just finding the money. It’s finding a solution,” Coffman said.

Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet said persuading Congress to approve more money will be difficult, “but failure is not an option.”

Bennet and others said those responsible should be held accountable.

Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said top VA officials should be fired. The chairman and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Committee, Republican Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, said the VA must explain the ballooning costs.

The VA has said it is investigating.

The agency says the facility is 60 percent complete. Contractor Kiewit-Turner stopped construction in December after a federal appeals board said the VA breached its agreement by insisting on a design that couldn’t be built for the budget, then $600 million.

Work resumed after the VA enlisted the Corps of Engineers as advisers.

More than 400,000 veterans live in the area served by the hospital, including most of the urban Front Range corridor and eastern Colorado.

“To me, it’s a disgrace,” said Ralph Bozella of Longmont, a Vietnam veteran.

Bozella said he had a medical procedure scheduled at the Denver VA hospital Wednesday but it was delayed because the facility doesn’t have enough space.

“I’m sitting there in a wheelchair in a hallway with three or four other veterans waiting for a room. It all boils down to us, the veterans, again getting the raw end of the deal,” he said.

Michael Mitchell, commander of VFW Post 1 in Denver, said he was alarmed by the price but said the hospital design has changed over the years to incorporate new technology and services, such as caring for female veterans.

Expensive weapons systems don’t get as much scrutiny as veterans hospitals, he said.

“We’re surprised at the pricing, but we’re also not picking sides,” he said. “The numbers are just an estimate. It’s still very fluid.”


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

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