The new VA hospital under construction in Aurora, Colorado will go down as one of the biggest boondoggles in U.S. history. Construction was halted on the new facility in December when the contractor stopped work saying there was not enough money to complete the project.
At the heart of the dispute is the fact that it was supposed to cost $325 million, but mushroomed into a $1.73 billion dollar project. The new estimate came from the Army Corps of Engineers which was asked to come up with a reliable estimate to complete the project last spring when no one, including the VA, could determine the cost to complete the facility.
“I am completely shocked by the number,” U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Colorado Democrat said in March when the Army Corps figures were released. “This is a number that took my breath away.”
“It’s sticker shock,” U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican who represents Aurora said in March. “It is going to be a heavy lift to get this through Congress.”
Coffman’s prediction proved to be correct. Despite help from both Colorado Senators—Democrat Michael Bennett and Republican Cory Gardener—and help from Congressman Perlmutter, Congressman Coffman has been unable to secure funding from the Republican-controlled House to complete the hospital.
Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said on the floor of the House, “The American people are seeing more of the same. At this point, the VA can’t even build a hospital.” As a result, all that Coffman and Perlmutter could get was a small $110 million increase in the project cap—far short of what is required, and enough money to re-start construction for a couple of months while negotiations continue.
Speaking at the South Metro Chamber of Commerce in Centennial, Colorado Tuesday, Congressman Coffman was adamant that the hospital must be finished. “It would be a disservice to the Veterans who served this nation to not finish this facility,” Coffman, a Veteran himself, asserted.
Coffman was not optimistic that the Republican majority would cough up the additional money. Not only are all members of Congress stunned that what started out as a $325 million project turned into a $1.7 billion dollar boondoggle. At the core of the opposition is total dissatisfaction with the Veterans Administration by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle for the aisle.
Rep. Coffman is hoping to save the project by a combination of value engineering to reduce the $1.7 billion cost and a package of reforms in the way the VA builds hospitals. “Aurora is not the only VA hospital under construction with massive cost overruns,” Coffman said. “Five other projects are over budget.” We must get the VA out of the business of building hospitals, Coffman stated.
The VA paid $400 million in bonuses to administrators, and many of those were unearned according to Coffman. An investigation showed that administrators across the country kept two lists of veterans waiting for appointments. One was the real list, the other a fake list designed to make it look like they were cutting wait times. Much of that $400 million was paid to the same people who lied about wait times.
Coffman, and others, have had no luck getting the money back because under current regulations, the VA must prove fraud. Coffman said it is not as much a case of fraud; it is that those bonuses were not earned, and should therefore be paid back.
If the hospital is left unfinished, all the money spent thus far would be a waste. Veterans would be left with the current hospital which was designed for a much smaller veteran population. Two decades of war has exponentially increased the number of veterans who rely on the Denver facility for health care. The nation promised veterans healthcare and we owe it to them.
Coffman and Perlmutter will try to resolve the issue when Congress reconvenes. The chances are less than 50-50 because this issue is caught up in politics. Republicans do not want to reward the Obama administration with a victory. Democrats are hard pressed to defend this massive cost creep.
It is a disgrace, however, to punish veterans because their government screwed up. One thing is certain: the VA must get out of the hospital construction business. Perhaps, some of the shortfall can come from taking back the unearned bonuses.
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