Pressure increases on VA to let others handle construction

By Dan Elliott, Associated Press | Posted - Sep. 4, 2015 at 7:41 p.m.



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DENVER (AP) — New criticism of the VA's troubled hospital construction program turned up the pressure in Congress on Friday for the agency to turn over future big projects to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson said a series of reports by the Corps of Engineers reinforces the need for the Veterans Affairs Department to stay out of construction and "and focus on the business of providing care to veterans."

The VA asked the Corps to look at what went wrong with hospitals in Aurora, Colorado; Orlando, Florida; North Las Vegas, Nevada; and New Orleans. All racked up huge cost overruns and long delays.

The Corps largely blamed management problems, including mishandled contracts, poor cost controls and slow approval of required changes once construction began. The Corps' reports, released Thursday, also cited multiple changes in the designs and square footage during the planning stages.

The Corps warned that without fundamental changes in the VA's methods, it would likely run into similar problems in the future.

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said the reports confirm that the VA is incapable of handling big projects.

"It's been public knowledge since April 2003 that all of their major construction projects were just out of control," Coffman said. "The Army Corps of Engineers does this for a living and they ought to be doing this stuff."

GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, also from Colorado, said the reports are more evidence of widespread mismanagement at the VA. "The lack of accountability is unacceptable," he said.

VA officials say they accept the Corps' findings and that many of the recommended changes are underway.

"We are embracing every single finding," Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said Thursday during a visit to the Colorado construction site.

In an email to The Associated Press, Isakson, a Georgia Republican, said the VA needs to do more.

"As the report notes, the department needs 'transformative change' to put an end to the administrative and leadership failures that led to these messes in the first place," he said. The VA has been investigating agency officials but hasn't announced any actions.

Coffman wants to strip the VA the authority to manage any construction project worth more than $10 million, but he said the threshold is likely to be $100 million because of opposition from agency.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., said the cutoff should be between $10 million and $100 million, noting the VA hasn't had problems completing smaller, less expensive clinics.

He said the Corps reports showed too many decisions were being made by VA executives in Washington instead of those closer to the actual work.

"It confirmed the fact that there are a lot of layers between the construction project and the people making the decisions," he said.

Congress is demanding changes in the VA after the cost of the Colorado hospital, in the Denver suburb of Aurora, ballooned to $1.73 billion, nearly triple the estimate from a year earlier.

The VA says it can complete a pared-down version for about $1.6 billion. It's asking Congress for $625 million more on top of about $1 billion already authorized.

The hospital is about half complete. Work has continued under a series of short-term funding deals but the money will run out at the end of the month.

Gibson said he's optimistic Congress will approve the VA's latest proposal, which he said would transfer $625 million from other accounts within the VA without affecting medical care or other construction projects currently underway.

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Follow Dan Elliott at http://twitter.com/DanElliottAP

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This story has been corrected to show Gardner's first name is Cory, not Corey.

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Dan Elliott

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