Lawmakers to VA: Find another way to pay for Denver hospital

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawmakers from both parties said Tuesday they will not divert money from a new health care law to pay for a half-finished hospital in Denver that now is expected to cost more than $1.7 billion — nearly triple an estimate the Department of Veterans Affairs gave last year.

The VA is asking Congress to redirect $730 million from the new Veterans Choice Act to complete the long-delayed hospital. The law was passed last year in response to a scandal over long waiting times for veterans seeking health care and falsified records to cover up the delays.

Among other provisions, the law allocated $5 billion to allow the VA to hire more physicians, upgrade facilities and make other improvements to give veterans better access to health care.

The VA says it needs $730 million from the Veterans Choice program to finish the Denver hospital, which is years behind schedule and plagued by massive cost overruns that have prompted widespread criticism and frustration from lawmakers in both parties.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs committee, called the hulking project a "mockery of government contracting" and an embarrassing boondoggle. The VA's request to divert choice funds for the Colorado hospital is a "non-starter," Blumenthal said, calling it "unacceptable" to defer health care improvements in his state and others to accommodate cost overruns at a single site.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the panel's chairman, also criticized the request and said the VA should look for other ways to pay for the hospital, including selling surplus buildings. Isakson, who toured the Denver project last month with Blumenthal and other lawmakers, said the Denver hospital is the last one the VA should attempt to build.

"The VA has demonstrated it can't build a hospital without going over budget 100 percent, 200 percent, 300 percent," Isakson said.

VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson acknowledged that the funding request was unusual — especially since he and other VA officials had lobbied extensively for the choice program in the first place — but said the agency had few alternatives.

"We don't have $700 million sitting on the sidelines. There are no easy answers," Gibson said.

Isakson said he and other lawmakers will meet with the VA this week to consider options.

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