AURORA | Leaders of the U.S. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee came to Aurora and pummeled VA officials Friday responsible for massive cost overruns and delays of the local VA hospital deemed to be more than $1 billion over budget.
“It’s very unusual to have a hearing like this outside of DC, but that gives you a sense of the gravity of this situation,” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said at the embattled VA hospital in Aurora after a tour. Bennet was one of a group of senators visiting the site for a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that met in Aurora Friday afternoon.
Multiple design changes may be the reason the hospital complex soared more than $1 billion over budget, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee told reporters after touring the half-finished complex Friday.
“When you have a lot of changes, you have a lot of costs,” Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia said.
Some members of the panel said they can’t get a clear picture of what went wrong to cause such a massive budgeting problem because the VA hasn’t gone outside of using its own department to analyze the problem. That prompted some to suggest the Department of Justice should intervene.
“Now we need to hold people accountable,” said Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner.
At a hearing held later in the day at the Aurora Municipal Center, numerous Congressman referred to a 2013 Government Accountability Office report that surveyed four major VA regional hospital projects, and found them on average, 35 months behind schedule and $336 million over budget.
Colorado Congressman Ed Perlmutter asked Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues with GAO, whether some of the cost overruns could be attributed to price increases since the standalone Aurora hospital project broke ground in 2009.
Goldstein testified that an increase in the cost of building materials along with incomplete designs and change-order processing delays were the primary causes of cost overruns in all four projects.
“Because of the processes and the management of VA, the subcontractors and contractors were bidding up and asking for prices because they knew there would be problems associated with the program,” he said.
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson testified that a flawed contract the VA entered into with Kiewit-Turner in 2011 was to blame for the hospital’s $1.73 billion price tag.
“The selection of the (integrated design contract) IDC contract form and VA’s commitment to a design that could be built for less than $600 million were both critically flawed,” he said.
The VA has asked Congress for another $830 million to finish the complex. It wants to take the money from a $5 billion fund Congress approved to improve veterans’ access to care known as The Veterans Choice Act.
Some lawmakers are promising to fight that plan, and are pushing that the VA get out of the construction business altogether.
“If you’re going to take it out of Veterans Choice, who are you going to penalize and how are you going to fix them when their problem comes up?” Isakson asked Gibson.
Isakson said that since the VA agreed to have the Army Corps of Engineers permanently manage construction of the Aurora hospital, the administration should look at its own construction budget for more money to complete the hospital.
Aurora Congressman Mike Coffman, a vocal critic of the VA’s handling of the project, continued to push for using VA employee bonuses for two years to help pay for the most recent cost overruns.
“This cost has to come out of VA’s hide,” Coffman said.
Steve Rylant, president of the United Veterans Committee of Colorado, told the panel that canceling bonuses could drive away medical professionals, but Isakson said the target would be the VA construction officials, not caregivers.
All the senators and representatives present insisted that the hospital should be completed, despite some suggestions that it could be scaled back or even sold.
“I think we have complete agreement that we do need to find the money to complete this project,” Bennet said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.