Congress Clears Path To Fund VA Hospital Completion

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 feared construction would never be completed, but Congress Wednesday approved a funding plan to complete work on the over-budget VA hospital complex in Aurora. The money was included in the measure passed to avoid a government shutdown.

In a statement, the Veterans Affairs department said the money will give the VA the flexibility it needs to complete the project.

"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," said the VA.

On the amount of money involved:

The cost of the project ballooned to $1.7 billion -- three times earlier estimates for the hospital complex. Now, the VA can shift money in its own budget to come up with the $625 million needed to complete construction.

Chart: Rising costs of VA hospital in Aurora

Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, whose district includes Aurora, says the move means the project will no longer be funded essentially in dribs and drabs.

“It’s huge because it doesn’t do the piecemeal funding that we’ve done in the past. It does the whole thing. It does the whole $625 million that’s necessary to complete the hospital," the congressman said.

Congress stripped the VA from construction management:

The funding bill does dictate that VA be stripped of management of projects costing more than $100 million. That effectively bars VA from building future hospital projects.

Members of Congress have blamed VA incompetence and mismanagement for the ballooning costs and delays. Top VA officials have admitted to many mistakes and apologized. They say all the top VA managers involved in the problematic early phase of the project have either retired or been reassigned.

The Government Accountability Office did a lengthy report that found essentially everything that could go wrong did on this project. Probably the No. 1 problem was that construction bids were put out before design planning was done. That caused many changes during construction and caused labor and material costs to soar. Now the Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing construction.

How veterans will react:

They're probably relieved, and cautiously optimistic construction can now roll on without all the drama and contention that's swirled around the project. Ralph Bozella, a Vietnam-era Army veteran, who serves in a position with the American Legion, worried earlier this year the project could get bogged down indefinitely.

“I think it’s no longer a hospital to nowhere. I firmly believe this will finally get finished. It will be funded to get finished, and then let’s see what happens over the next two years," he said.

Bozella is currently receiving health care at the aging VA medical center in Denver. But he's seen newer medical facilities and says the 12-building hospital complex in Aurora will be a welcome change.

“I’ve been to University of Colorado on a contract basis through VA this past summer and when you’re in a newer facility like that how much better it feels for your treatment. And that kind of positive energy has a lot to do with how you respond to treatment and your healing process. I think all of that is what veterans have to look forward to in about two years. Really, I can’t wait until this thing is done," he said.

There is no official date for construction to be finished. Construction began in 2012 and earlier estimates projected a completion date in 2017 or 2018.