- Associated Press - Thursday, March 26, 2015

DENVER (AP) - Congress should cancel all VA employee bonuses and use the money to finish the budget-busting Denver veterans hospital, Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman said Thursday.

Coffman and other lawmakers are angry that the Department of Veterans Affairs awarded thousands of dollars in bonuses to its top construction official, Glenn Haggstrom, even though hospitals in Denver, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Orlando, Florida, racked up huge cost overruns and fell far behind schedule.

Haggstrom retired Wednesday amid an internal investigation into the problems at the Denver hospital, the VA said. No phone listing for him could be found to seek comment.

Coffman and Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, both Republicans, on Thursday introduced legislation in the House and Senate that would erase $360 million in bonuses from the VA’s current budget. Coffman said he plans to ask Congress to reallocate that money, and all future years’ bonuses, to the Denver hospital until it’s finished.

“You take $360 million a year, it won’t take long to pay for the cost overruns,” Coffman said.

The VA said last week the hospital would cost $1.73 billion. Coffman says the VA insisted last year it would cost about $630 million.

The hospital is being built in suburban Aurora and will replace an old, crowded Denver facility.

Coffman and Gardner’s bill would raise the spending cap on the hospital to $1.73 billion, the first step toward getting more money.

But persuading the Republican-controlled Congress to allocate about $1 billion more for construction could be daunting. On Wednesday, the House passed a budget that would cut spending by nearly $5 trillion over the next decade to eliminate deficits.

Coffman said his plan provides the money to finish the hospital without increasing VA spending.

The New Orleans hospital is expected to cost $995 million and open in early 2016. In 2013, it was expected to cost $625 million and open in late 2014.

The House Veterans Committee has said the Las Vegas hospital was $260 million over budget, and the Orlando hospital was $362 million over budget.

Coffman and Gardner’s bill would also strip the VA of authority to oversee hospital construction projects costing more than $10 million and put the Army Corps of Engineers in charge of them. It would also direct the Government Accountability Office to conduct its own investigation into the Denver cost overruns.

The VA is also working to shorten the time that veterans must wait for medical appointments after allegations that some facilities falsified data to cover up problems. Gardner said the construction overruns and wait times were separate but related issues.

“I think it’s symptomatic of a bureaucracy that has lost sight of itself. The bureaucracy has gotten in the way of the mission,” he said. “That is the responsibility of the administration and Congress to fix.”

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

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