2015 Year in Review: After VA budget fights, they’re finishing ‘the damn thing’

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Aurora, CO, December 30, 2015 | comments

Content originally published by the Aurora Sentinel on December 30th, 2015.

After a long and costly process and cries from veterans to “finish the damn thing,” the federal government awarded a final construction contract in the fall of 2015 to complete an over-budget veterans medical center, which will be located across from the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. The hospital is set to open in January 2018.

The $1.7-billion total means the medical center will cost nearly triple the estimates of last year. Investigators blamed the overruns on multiple design changes and a decision by VA officials to use a complicated contract process they didn’t fully understand.

A Corps of Engineers investigation into what went wrong said the VA repeatedly changed the design and square footage of the hospital. The Corps also said the VA used a complicated contract process that department officials didn’t understand, and that they adopted it too late in the process, leading to disputes and conflicting cost estimates.

With the final contract signed, construction sped up at the site in northwest Aurora. The ambitious, 184-bed medical center is slated to offer 1.2 million square feet with nine buildings that will include two inpatient facilities, three clinics, as well as a research facility and an energy center with solar panels. There are plans for three parking structures, one which will be located underground next to the outpatient buildings.

According to the United Veterans Committee, the regional medical facility is needed for one million veterans in the Rocky Mountain region that includes Colorado, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska and New Mexico.

“It’s a relief,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, whose district includes the hospital.

Coffman and the other members of the Colorado delegation sharply criticized the VA while pushing Congress to approve the money to complete the medical center.

Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter said he was pleased the contract was done, noting it turns over management of the project to the Army Corps of Engineers. He said the corps will report regularly to Congress on progress.

Congress stripped the VA of the authority to manage large construction projects in the future when it approved additional money for the hospital. The Corps of Engineers will handle such projects in the future.

Work on the VA medical center had been moving slowly since December 2014, when a panel of judges ruled the VA breached the original contract by insisting on a design that couldn’t be built for the agreed-upon price.

The standalone Aurora hospital project broke ground in 2009.The project was estimated to cost about $583 million in 2010 but had been rising steadily since then. The VA launched two internal investigations and has promised to punish those responsible for the problems, but no firings have been announced, angering many members of Congress.

A 2013 Government Accountability Office report that surveyed four major VA regional hospital projects in the U.S. found them on average, 35 months behind schedule and $336 million over budget. Aurora’s VA hospital cost increase of 144 percent was the largest of any of the four surveyed at $472 million, with an increase from $328 million in June 2004 to $800 million in November 2012.

The VA has said the top executives on the project at the time of the mistakes have retired or been transferred or demoted, but members of Congress have been demanding that those responsible be fired.

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