How is the Department of Veterans Affairs going to pay for it?
That was just one of the woes tackled at a tense, nearly three-hour congressional hearing on Wednesday on the most expensive construction project in the VA’s history: a still uncompleted $1.7 billion hospital in suburban Denver, which a number of lawmakers again and again said was causing “bipartisan heartburn and angst.”
Not only does the project need congressional approval for an additional $830 million in funding to avoid shutting down, but the medical center’s current design is still too small by about 550,000 gross square feet.
The 184-bed hospital is expected to replace an outdated and crowded facility in Denver. But the project is already $1 billion over budget and includes what even VA’s leadership has called “extravagant features,” including a $100 million atrium and concourse that veterans groups say is a waste of resources.
“To simplify all of that for you, the Denver project has been discussed for 15 years, is a billion dollars over budget, several years behind schedule, and — on the day it opens — will apparently be too small,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) who heads the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
“I feel like I need a bath. I feel that bad,” said Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) who is a doctor. “This $ 1 billion could have provided a tremendous amount of health care- examining rooms and ICU’s – not on winning architectural awards. But now we are stuck in the ultimate catch-22 – we don’t want to go ahead, but we can’t quit.”
Some lawmakers said they were troubled, but wouldn’t rule out a VA plan to use part of the $5 billion that Congress allocated last year to hire more physicians, improve facilities and give veterans better access to health care to fund the completion of the hospital.
The funds were meant to address medical staffing shortages that were at the heart of last year’s VA scandal, which found that sick veterans were waiting months on end for appointments while officials fudged wait times in reports to Washington. Lawmakers made no decisions on Wednesday, but said they had “angst,” over what Miller has called, “a shocking lack of accountability” and a “historic construction catastrophe.”
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) has floated an idea to spend the department’s multimillion-dollar bonus budget on the Denver project.
But VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, who has been only recently tapped to get the project back on track, called that suggestion “a lousy idea,” saying it would take money out of the pockets of hard-working VA employees.
The troubles in Denver have burst into public view during the one-year anniversary of the patient wait-time scandal, which cost VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki his job and created national pressure to reform the VA. But it’s been a deeply troubled year for the agency.
Miller said the hospital’s troubles are a symbol of widespread dysfunction at the department, which critics say has problems that include benefits backlogs to continued long wait times for patients.
“Failures of this magnitude represent systemic problems above and beyond the work of a single person,” Miller said. “Much more housecleaning and top-to-bottom reform is needed before we can even begin to consider whether VA is competent to manage a construction program.”
Coffman asked whether VA “is qualified to build a lemonade stand, let alone a multimillion-dollar hospital facility.” Rep. Kathleen Rice, (D-N.Y.,) said federal investigators should look into criminal charges for fraud and contracting mistakes.
Members of Congress also slammed the VA for firing a whistleblower – Adelino R. Gorospe Jr.-who kept warning of cost overruns in internal VA emails as far back as 2010. At the same time, the VA had not held any high-ranking officials accountable, Miller said.
Gorospe was fired in 2012 for allegedly disobeying a supervisor. His supervisor was Glenn Haggstrom, the top VA official in charge of construction nationwide, who retired last month, one day after he was interviewed under oath as part of the investigation, Sloan said. Haggstrom received over $60,000 in bonuses while working on the overbudget and late project.
“Why are we punishing whistleblowers and giving bonuses to Haggstrom,” asked Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas).
During the hearing, Gibson apologized several times to both Congress and veterans for the ballooning price tag of the project, at one point saying, “I wish I could change history. We bungled. We screwed it up.”
He added that the agency would look into Gorospe’s firing.
But Goropse, who watched the hearing live and online, said in an e-mail, “I’m not holding my breath.”