VA facing new congressional crackdown after Colorado hospital boondoggle

A congressional battle is brewing over the Department of Veterans Affairs' admitted mismanagement of construction projects across the country -- including an over-budget, billion-dollar hospital in Colorado that was, briefly, abandoned by the contractor.

"VA construction managers couldn't lead starving troops to a chow hall," Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman said in a recent statement.

Coffman, an Army and Marine Corps combat veteran, plans to introduce legislation stripping the VA of its authority to manage construction projects, and putting the Army Corps of Engineers in charge instead.

The Republican congressman's district includes the location of the troubled VA hospital project in Aurora, Colo. -- the latest black eye for the agency following the scandal over secret waiting lists.

The VA's original design in 2005 was estimated to cost $328 million. By 2008, design changes led Congress to authorize $568 million for the project. By 2010, Congress increased the authorization to $800 million.

With most of that money already spent, the hospital is still only half-finished, leaving area veterans frustrated and angry.

"It makes no sense to me why the VA is managing the project," one veteran named Mark said while entering the aging Denver hospital which the Aurora project is supposed to replace. "I am one of the many hundreds of thousands who need a better facility to get treatment quicker."

With costs soaring and the VA falling behind on payments to general contractor Kiewit-Turner, the company sued.

In December, the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals agreed with the company's assessment that the project could not be completed for less than $1 billion -- and let it out of its contract.

Kiewit-Turner then initially walked off the half-finished project, leaving 1,400 workers out of a job.

In a visit to Colorado to negotiate a deal to bring workers back, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson admitted the agency was at fault. "I apologize to veterans here in Colorado. I apologize to the taxpayers. We have let you down," he said.

Coffman maintains, "It's not isolated to Aurora, Colorado. Every major construction project that the [VA] has right now is hundreds of millions of dollars over-budget and years behind schedule."

A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said that VA hospital construction projects in several cities were, on average, $300 million over-budget and three years behind schedule.

During his visit to the construction site in Colorado, Sloan announced an interim agreement for work to resume temporarily. Kiewit-Turner is now back on the job, but with the Army Corps of Engineers overseeing the project.

"Their role here on-site will be to advise and support VA in the execution of this interim contract," Sloan said. Sloan said the Army Corps will also figure out just how off-track the project is, and negotiate with the contractor on a plan to actually finish it.

"We don't know, I don't know, quite frankly I don't think KT knows right now, what it will cost to complete the project." He said he hopes it will finally be ready for area veterans, "sometime in 2017."

While work has resumed for now, Sloan said the VA only has enough money left to keep the project going for a few months. To finish it, Congress will have to come up with more.

If passed, Coffman's legislation would lift the current $800 million spending cap. "Right now there is nothing that we can do to reverse the costly mistakes that the VA has made," he said. "This project can't be left sitting there half-finished."

However, Coffman said his legislation will also include the requirement that the VA transfer authority over all its construction projects to the Army Corps. "We cannot expect those who drove us into the ditch at the [VA] to drive us out of the ditch. That's just not going to happen."

Sloan said the agency wants to stay in control. "Whether or not it makes sense for the Corps to take over all the VA's construction activity, I'm not there yet," he said.

Colorado veteran John Dennis expressed disgust at the course of the project. "The people that are spearheading this new hospital, which is a much-needed thing, to me are acting like selfish children," he said.