Congress agrees to deal to fund VA hospital in Aurora

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Washington, DC, September 30, 2015 | comments

Originally Published in the Denver Post on September 30, 2015, click here to go to page.  

A last-minute fight over funding for a Veterans Affairs hospital in Aurora was settled peacefully Wednesday, and now construction of the $1.675 billion facility has the full support of Congress — ending months of frustration for Colorado lawmakers and veterans.

"Today marks a pivotal day for veterans in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region," said U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. "Years from now, when veterans go to this hospital to receive the care that they have (been) promised, they will enter into what will be the crown jewel of the VA infrastructure, the crown jewel of the VA system."

Prior to the celebration, however, Colorado lawmakers had to solve one final issue: helping the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs get the final $625 million it says it needs to finish the troubled project, which has blown its budget so badly that its current price tag is nearly three times the $604 million the VA expected to pay in 2011.

Last week, at the urging of Gardner and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., the Senate agreed to a bill that would allow the VA to spend that additional $625 million.

But the measure — which cleared the Senate unanimously Friday — initially was opposed by U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, the powerful chairman of the House veterans committee.

Miller, a Florida Republican, wanted the VA to cover part of the $625 million by siphoning $200 million from a fund used to pay employee bonuses. He was so adamant about this approach that on Tuesday he successfully blocked the Senate bill from going forward in the House.

Under pressure from Colorado lawmakers and Republican leadership, however, Miller relented. And in a floor speech Wednesday, he said he would support the Senate bill reluctantly.

But that didn't mean he went quietly.

In his speech, Miller railed against a lack of accountability at the VA and an agency culture that has allowed officials to spend millions of dollars on artwork and conferences with little repercussion for the gross mismanagement of the Aurora facility.

"The (House veterans) committee recently found that the Palo Alto (Calif.) VA health care system has spent at least $6.3 million on art — on art and consulting services," he said. "These projects include an art installation on the side of a parking garage that displays quotes by Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt in — wait for it — in Morse code that cost $285,000. It actually lights up."

Although Miller's frustration is shared by members of Colorado's congressional delegation, lawmakers from the state said local veterans need the hospital built as soon as possible to deal with growing demand.

"There is no doubt the VA mismanaged this project from the start. And as disappointing and unacceptable as this situation has been, we are where we are," said U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada. "Under the leadership of (VA) Secretary (Robert) McDonald and Deputy Secretary (Sloan) Gibson, the VA has admitted their mistakes on this project, and they are both personally involved in completion of this facility."

A couple hours after Miller spoke, the House passed the Senate bill by a unanimous vote. Congress also moved ahead Wednesday with a separate stopgap spending bill for the federal budget that is considered essential to continue work on the Aurora project.

The twin moves all but end a Colorado campaign that began last spring to keep the over-budget project afloat and funded.

"We have the components in place to complete this facility to serve the needs of veterans in Colorado and throughout the Rocky Mountain region," Bennet said in a statement. "Now let's finish the damn thing."

Added VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon in a statement: "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."

Accompanying these cheers, however, is no small amount of relief, as the Colorado effort to fund the facility nearly fell apart in the final week. Until Wednesday, it appeared as if the Senate bill and Miller's proposal were on a collision course with little time to solve the impasse.

The VA has spent about $1 billion on the project. And without getting approval from Congress to spend the extra $625 million, it was expected that work on the construction site would shut down in early October.

But congressional aides said Miller gave up the fight after he realized his proposal was dead on arrival in the upper chamber and after he was told that the VA would take a look at his ideas to route money to the Aurora project from less-essential parts of the agency.

Included in the Senate measure are several reforms, including a provision that would put the Army Corps of Engineers in charge of any VA project expected to cost $100 million or more. The policy change is in direct response to budget problems at the Aurora construction site and a handful of other new VA facilities.

That this funding fight came down to the final few days is not a huge surprise; twice this year, Congress hesitated before eventually steering money to the Aurora hospital, which was badly managed and over-designed according to a months-long investigation by The Denver Post.

With the last $625 million ready to go, federal lawmakers now can turn their attention toward instituting broader changes at the VA, as well as prepare for the public release of two federal inquiries that sought to understand how the Aurora project became the biggest construction failure in the agency's history.

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