No money for Aurora VA hospital without agency reforms, key congressmen say

Photo: Aurora VA Hospital construction April 2015, chain link fence (AP Photo)
As seen through the pattern of a fence, a sign stands at the construction site of the Veterans Affairs hospital Thursday, April 2, 2015, in Aurora, Colo.

Some key members of Congress want sweeping changes at the Department of Veterans Affairs before any more money will be approved to finish the controversial VA Medical Center under construction in Aurora.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, of Georgia, and Rep. Jeff Miller, of Florida, both Republicans, lead the Veterans Affairs committees in the Senate and the House. They’re calling for the VA to fire those responsible for manipulating wait times, stop retaliating against whistleblowers and fix a culture they call “corrosive.”

The Denver VA Medical Center "is the biggest construction failure in VA history. Since the project’s inception, the cost of the hospital has ballooned from $328 million to $1.73 billion. Yet as the project spiraled out of control, VA ignored congressional pleas to get things back on track at almost every turn," Miller and Isakson wrote.

“For its part, VA to this day has refused to take this project seriously. Instead of putting forth a realistic plan for covering the enormous cost overruns in Denver by finding efficiencies in its existing budget and eliminating waste, VA has essentially demanded that taxpayers subsidize the department’s incompetence with an $830 million bailout."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, the committee's ranking Democrat, is also calling for the VA to identify "a path to complete" the project. In a statement, he said the VA was able to find an additional $100 million in funding for the project after a barrage of criticism about the $1.73 billion estimate. "Now they need to work with the administration to identify the rest," he said.

Members of the Senate committee took a tour of the over-budget construction site on April 24. They were joined by Colorado U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Republican, as well as U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican.

Blumenthal called that day 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.

Bennet warned of a Titanic-like disaster ahead. where "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."

For his part that day, Isakson said, "We've got to finish the project and we will finish the project."

When asked why its costs had escalated to $1.73 billion, Isakson said in April, "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.

Isakson and Miller's criticism Thursday extended beyond the financing of the VA hospital, to another issue that's made headlines recently: the time veterans have been forced to wait for care at VA facilities, and the documented ways some of those facilities manipulated the wait times.

“We’ve been down this road before. Last year, VA promised to fire those responsible for manipulating wait times, stop its longstanding pattern of whistleblower retaliation and fix the department’s corrosive culture. That hasn’t happened yet, and Congress will not tolerate any more empty VA promises.

The VA says it wants to work together with Congress to finish the project and hold individuals accountable where appropriate. Paul Sherbo, a spokesman for the VA, said he believes reallocating existing funds "is the right choice" to allow for the completion of the project, and "best option" for taxpayers.

You can read the full statement from Isakson and Miller here.