- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

DENVER (AP) - Congress approved a deal on Wednesday to let the Veterans Affairs Department complete a vastly over-budget medical center outside Denver, ending months of uncertainty about the future of the ambitious project.

The VA can now shift the $625 million it needs to finish the hospital from other accounts within its budget. But the deal strips the department of the authority to manage big construction projects in the future and gives it to the Army Corps of Engineers - a change that angry lawmakers demanded to avoid a repeat.

“It’s hard for me to tell you how happy I am,” said Steve Rylant, a member of the United Veterans Committee of Colorado, a coalition of groups that pressed to complete the project. “I just want to go outside and jump up and down.”

The half-finished hospital in the Denver suburb of Aurora is expected to cost nearly $1.7 billion, almost triple last year’s estimate. The Corps of Engineers blamed the overruns on multiple design changes and a decision by VA officials to use a complicated contract process they didn’t fully understand.

Colorado’s congressional delegation expressed relief that the VA finally has the authority to finish after a series of stop-gap measures that slowed the pace of construction to a crawl. If Congress hadn’t acted, the project would have run out of money soon, bringing work to a halt, causing more delays and pushing up costs.

“I feel good about the path we’re on,” said Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, whose district includes the medical center.

Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter said construction had been mismanaged but needed to be finished. “I am pleased Congress is finally doing its part to finish this project,” he said in a written statement.

The 184-bed medical center is a collection of a dozen large interconnected buildings that would replace an old, overcrowded facility in Denver.

Ralph Bozella, who gets treatment and the old hospital, called it outdated and dreary.

“It’s flat-out depressing to be in there,” Bozella said. A brighter, airier facility will put patients in better spirits, “and that can only enhance the healing process,” he said.

The VA faces further scrutiny from Congress on how it shuffles its budget to pay for the hospital. The deal requires the department to submit details to the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees.

Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House committee, said Wednesday that $200 million of the VA’s proposed transfers could hurt medical care and delay other projects.

Miller was also unhappy the VA’s plan doesn’t promise that employees responsible for the problems will be held accountable. VA officials say they’re investigating and will act on any misconduct they find.

The VA issued a statement again taking responsibility for the problems and promising to do better.

“We know we made mistakes in the development of this medical center, but we remain steadfast in our commitment to complete the state-of-the-art facility for Colorado veterans and doing so while being good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” the statement said.


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

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