Senators pledge to see troubled Aurora VA medical center project gets finished

Photo: Congressional delegation tours Aurora VA hosipital
Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Johnny Isakson speaks to reporters Friday, April 24 at the Aurora VA medical center site.

Key U.S. lawmakers said they're committed to make sure the troubled VA medical center project in Aurora gets completed.

Members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee took a tour of the over-budget construction site Friday. They were joined by Colorado U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Republican, as well as Colorado U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican.

"We've got to finish the project and we will finish the project," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the committee.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, the committee's ranking Democrat, called for an independent investigation, by the U.S. Department Justice, or another independent, objective entity. He described it as "the best way, maybe the only way to accountability" for the project.

Gardner and Bennet joined the others in criticism the VA for allowing the project's costs to balloon to five times initial estimates.

Bennet likened it to the Titanic disaster, saying the VA was warned on multiple occasions "there's an iceberg ahead and nobody at the VA would listen."

"$1.73 billion is what this project right now is estimated to cost." Gardner said. "That's one year worth of care for 200,000 veterans in this country."

"As a combat veteran this breaks my heart," Coffman said. "We've got to finish this hospital. We've got to hold those accountable who are responsible for this, and we've got to make sure it never happens again." Coffman also said the VA "has to get out of the construction business."

Other senators told reporters the VA needs to find funds without shortchanging programs serving veterans.

When asked why project costs had escalated to $1.73 billion, Sen. Isakson said "we had too many cooks in the soup," which led to many costly change orders, construction changes required of the contractor, Kiewit-Turner. "There were probably too many changes along the way. There was not enough discipline in the project. And they waited to long to make decisions," said Isakson.

The VA originally estimated the project costs at $328 million. Last month, the VA admitted the costs had escalated to $1.73 billion.

At an afternoon field hearing at Aurora's Municipal Center, leaders of two Colorado veterans' groups said the project is desperately needed. As veterans wait for needed care from existing VA facilities, "we don't know when (the new project) will be built," said Steve Rylant, president of the United Veterans Committee.