The troubled new Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Aurora, Colo., is expected to cost what Congress members are calling a “shocking” $1.73 billion, more than five times its original $328 million estimate, according to fresh estimates from VA officials.
The hospital is one of four VA medical center projects — including sites in Las Vegas, Orlando and New Orleans — that were listed as behind schedule and over budget, with a total cost increase of $1.5 billion and an average increase of $366 million, according to a Government Accountability Office report in 2013.
The new estimate for the Aurora project, which has been lobbied for by the Denver area’s large population of veterans since the late 90s, is now by far the most expensive in VA history.
It will be more than $1 billion over budget before it is finished. And it will need an increased congressional authorization of “$930 million to complete the project,” a VA statement said.
The medical center would serve 83,000 veterans in the Denver area, replacing World War II -era facility.
Congress has been angered at the delays and cost overruns. Some lawmakers are advocating to remove construction oversight from Veterans Affairs and give it to the Army Corps of Engineers, which helps build other sites for federal agencies.
The Corps of Engineers was called in this year to work with project’s contractor, Kiewit-Turner, in an “advisory and assessment” role, according to Veterans Affairs.
“One thing is certain: Congress will not authorize another dime until VA gets its construction affairs in order,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
On top of that, VA executives in charge of the four hospital projects were given bonuses despite the administration admitting failures to keep the projects on schedule and budget, FOX31 Denver reported.
Documents the Denver station obtained show that executives in Veterans Affairs were given $22 million in bonuses over the past six years.
When Kiewit-Turner took the Aurora project in 2010, the budget at that time was $600 million, which itself is on the high end of costs for a typical construction of a hospital in the private sector.
But the contractor warned that the plans Veterans Affairs submitted would cost more than $1 billion.
In December, federal judges said Veterans Affairs was in breach of contract with Kiewit-Turner and the site was closed down. Work as resumed at the site, but under threat of a shut down if Congress does not approve what Veterans Affairs is asking for.
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson has now vowed to get the project “back on track.”
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) earlier this year introduced legislation to install the Corps of Engineers as the party responsible for finishing the hospital.
“It’s sticker shock,” said Coffman, whose district includes parts of Aurora. “It is going to be a heavy lift to get this through Congress.”
“The spending on this project is so egregious and out of control it makes Kim Kardashian look like a tightwad,” said Coffman’s spokesman, Tyler Sandberg.
Miller, the House committee chairman, called the project “the biggest construction failure in VA history” on Wednesday afternoon and said those responsible – Construction Principal Executive Director Glenn Haggstrom and VA Office of Construction and Facilities Management Executive Director Stella Fiotes – should be fired.
“Every single member of VA’s top leadership is fully aware of these issues, yet the senior executives who presided over the mismanagement that led to them remain firmly entrenched at VA, where they collect generous taxpayer-funded salaries,” Miller said. “As part of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, Congress gave VA leaders the authority to immediately fire VA senior executives for poor performance. It’s well past time for the department to fire Haggstrom and Fiotes or explain to America’s veterans and American taxpayers why these individuals have earned the right to continued VA employment.”
Haggstrom and Fiotes could not be immediately reached for comment.
Meanwhile, veterans say they are the ones who suffered.
The American Legion in Colorado held a protest last year in which members held up “JUST BUILD THE DAMN THING” signs and carried shovels, symbolically ready to build it themselves.
“A design that has grown from a basic hospital into a Taj Mahal, mismanagement of funds, arrogant attitudes by the VA’s head of construction and the Design Team has been allowed to plague not only the Aurora VA Replacement Hospital but three more that are under construction,” Legion members said in a press release at the time.
Ralph Bozella, a leader of the American Legion in Colorado, said the area has one of the highest concentrations of veterans in the country.
“All we ever wanted was a hospital,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s just such a symbol of the Va’s lack of transparency and lack of accountability.”