For vets, it’s the end of hospital patience

202

AURORA | James Tenant has been on every floor of the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Denver hundreds of times over the past 22 years. Doctors there treat him for a slew of medical issues that he came back from Vietnam with after working on nuclear-powered submarines for the U.S. Navy.

He has post-traumatic stress disorder and was exposed to a host of toxic substances including radiation, asbestos and Agent Orange during his two-decades of service.

Marine Corps veteran Erick Benson poses with his drawer of VA-prescribed medicines, July 30 at his home in Aurora. Benson and other veterans say there's a real need for the VA to upgrade its facilities, and it's imperative that the VA Hospital in Aurora is built as soon as possible.  (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)
Marine Corps veteran Erick Benson poses with his drawer of VA-prescribed medicines, July 30 at his home in Aurora. Benson and other veterans say there’s a real need for the VA to upgrade its facilities, and it’s imperative that the VA Hospital in Aurora is built as soon as possible. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

He has plenty to grumble about, and adding to his problems is the VA hospital itself. While doctors and nurses provide top-notch care, Tenant said the maze-like hospital is old, unwelcoming, unattractive, and even unsanitary. For example, not once has he found hot water to wash his hands with in the men’s bathroom, he said.

“There’s some good people in that hospital but they are overwhelmed and they’ve got poor facilities,” said Tenant, 66, who lives in Aurora.

Tenant and local veterans say the need for a new, larger health-care facility for military service members is crucial. But as VA officials spar with builder Kiewit-Turner over the cost of the replacement veterans hospital in Aurora, veterans and federal lawmakers are becoming less and less confident that it will be built anytime soon.

A rendering of the new Aurora-based VA hospital is plastered on the wall of the parking lot with the caption: “Opening May 2014.” But it’s deceiving. Over the past several months, delays and reports that say the project is overbudget have led VA officials to surmise that doctors could start seeing patients at the new hospital by October 2015, at the same time that construction would finish wrapping up. But even those plans could be derailed since the VA and Kiewit-Turner are now in a lawsuit because the project is $400 million over-budget, bringing the price tag of the new VA hospital in Aurora to more than $1 billion.

“It needs to be built. It’s imperative, and somebody should step up and hold these people’s feet to the fire,” Tenant said.

The VA hospital in Denver is the primary health care facility in the state that serves more 430,000 veterans in Colorado. The need for a new VA hospital for the Rocky Mountain region will be even greater by next year, when thousands of service-members will return from Afghanistan. President Barack Obama announced in February that 34,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan — about half of the total number of troops stationed in that Middle-Eastern country — will have returned home by February 2014.

The current veterans hospital at 1055 Clermont Street in Denver is over-capacity, many vets and veterans groups say. That’s evidenced by the VA’s parking garage. The seven-story structure is full by about 10 a.m. most weekdays.

Erick Benson, 24, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps between 2007 and 2010, said he avoids the Denver VA Medical Center if he can help it. “The waiting room is always packed,” said Benson, an Aurora resident. It’s hard to navigate through the long, narrow, hallways of the hospital, and the building is dingy and glum inside, he said. He’s excited about the prospect of a new VA hospital at the edge of the Anschutz Medical Campus in north Aurora. But as months have passed and spats between the VA and builder Kiewit-Turner have come to light, Benson isn’t confident that the hospital will be open by 2015.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be built anytime soon, but it needs to be done,” he said.

The VA has been mum on Kiewit Turner’s lawsuit and the possibility that the replacement hospital won’t be built on time.

“In that certain issues arising under this contract are now in litigation, VA will provide no further comment on the Denver (Aurora) project pending the outcome of the litigation,” said Glenda Powell, a Washington DC-based spokeswoman for the VA’s Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction, in a statement.

The 1.1 million square-foot replacement facility was originally supposed to cost about $600 million, according to Kiewit-Turner’s letter of complaint, filed with the federal Civilian Board of Contract Appeals on July 8. But after the budget contract was signed in November 2011, the VA submitted design plans to Kiewit-Turner that were more complex and “significantly increased the scope of the work,” according to the complaint.

The VA never provided Kiewit-Turner a design plan that could be built “anywhere close” to $600 million, the complaint said.

Officials for Kiewit-Turner say the construction firm is continuing to work on the project, despite the lawsuit. “This filing follows the processes outlined in our contract and is not uncommon in the construction industry,” said Celeste Davis Stragand, spokeswoman for Kiewit-Turner. “It will not impact our commitment to working with the VA to resolve the challenges on the project and to deliver a world-class facility for area veterans.”

However, like many Aurora veterans, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, is also losing faith that the hospital will be complete in two years.

“Under these conditions, I wouldn’t hold out on that prospect,” he said.

Coffman said it’s implausible for him to lobby Congress to allocate an additional $400 million for the VA hospital project in Aurora. Instead, he said other alternatives should be researched to lower the cost of the project. For example, building the hospital itself without the research facility might be a good option, he said.

“We need to look at issues like that, that would bring the cost down and aren’t related in my view so directly to the health care of veterans,” Coffman said.

As the demand for a new veterans hospital grows by the month, Coffman said he’ll work with the VA to meet veterans’ needs.

“We’re going to work to try and get down to the bottom of this and see what we can do to get this project back on track,” Coffman said.

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]