Congress and the public are getting a clearer picture of what to expect when the VA’s long delayed Aurora hospital opens this summer, and there’s a lot of unhappiness as things come into focus.
The new hospital will have just over half as many primary care exam rooms as the one it replaces, requiring the Veterans’ Administration to keep the older facility in Denver open. That hospital will also be needed for PTSD treatment services, something the Aurora hospital won’t include when it opens.
“They never said until now 'We don't have room for all of our existing personnel in the old hospital.' I mean, I think that's stunning," said Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, whose district includes the hospital.
Coffman toured the new facility last week with fellow Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat from Lakewood, and GOP Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, the chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
“When Congress authorized this project … having two major VA hospitals six miles apart was never part of the deal,” Roe said Wednesday as he gavelled in a D.C. hearing on the hospital. He noted that in the more than ten years it’s taken the VA to build the hospital, “the practice of medicine, building codes, and intended uses for the spaces have changed.”
An official with the VA testified that the project is now 98 percent complete and on track to open Aug. 11, with a PTSD facility to be constructed later.
“I’m here to tell you the VA today is doing business very differently than in the past. We are rethinking everything about how we will modernize our infrastructure,” Stella Fiotes, the acting Executive Director of the VA’s Office of Acquisitions, Logistics, and Construction, told the committee.
Fiotes blamed the smaller number of exam rooms in part on changes to how the VA offers care, switching to teams that manage patients’ care. She couldn’t say why PTSD care was removed from the hospital project, but believes it was to reduce the overall cost of the project.
The total price tag for the Aurora hospital is likely to top two billion dollars. VA has budgeted $341 million to spend on finishing touches, including medical equipment and furniture.
But a witness from the Government Accountability Office cast doubt on VA’s projections, warning the Administration failed to provide solid data to justify that cost estimate, although he said their process is improving.
“VA has taken a number of steps, I would characterize it as early steps, in the process of building the capacity to do good cost estimation for activation,” said the GAO’s Andrew Von Ah. “As far as the current Denver estimate... we don’t have any concerns at this point that they’re going to not meet the schedule and cost that they put forth.”
While Wednesday’s hearing stressed ways in which the VA has learned from the problem-plagued Aurora hospital project, Rep. Coffman rejected those assurances.
“The fact that Ms. Fiotes is here today and some of the other players that have their fingerprints all over this one billion dollars in cost overruns is a signal to me that the VA has not changed,” Coffman said.