Army: 357 safety issues delay opening of Fort Riley hospital

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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The latest delay for the new, not-yet-opened Army hospital at Fort Riley is attributed to 357 safety issues, such as fire doors not meeting code requirements, according to a top Army official.

Assistant Secretary of the Army Katherine Hammack told U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran in a December letter that the latest problems were identified during pre-final inspections for the project that was initially fast-tracked for completion in 2012, things such as partitions and floors that do not provide fire protection. She told Moran that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has assured her that they intend to work with the contractor to complete the project "as expeditiously as possible."

"I understand and share your concerns about the hospital's completion delays," Hammack wrote in the letter sent to The Associated Press this week by Moran's office.

Meanwhile, hospital staff has begun training in the new facility that's 130 miles west of Kansas City, Missouri, running simulated patient scenarios such as a pregnant woman arriving in the emergency room in labor. The scenarios are meant to help staff learn the system in the new facility and "work out the kinks" before actual patients come in, said Col. Risa Ware, the hospital's commander.

"We felt it was important to go ahead and start doing this because we want to be ready to go as soon as the building is ready for us to go into it," Ware said in a phone interview Thursday.

Unlike office buildings, hospitals have to have a higher level of fire protection because the presumption is that the patients can't move themselves out without help, Ware said.

The project to replace Irwin Army Community Hospital, the oldest Army hospital in the nation, has been plagued with construction problems since its inception.

A Dallas-based joint venture team of Balfour Beatty Construction and Walton Construction won the contract in 2009 to build a $334 million facility, but by the time the building had been framed in 2011, the cost had grown to $404 million.

At least four subcontractors have sued in federal court, and the Balfour-Walton joint venture has filed its own claim against the Corps — a case that's under review by the federal government's Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals.

Some of the early delays were blamed on problems with the Corps' structural design, according to materials filed in the Balfour-Walton case that the AP obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. In those, the contractors say that the design, including the foundation, was incomplete or defective, stalling production and erection of structural steel work and driving up construction costs. The Corps has denied those allegations in its response to the complaint lodged with ASBCA.

Balfour Beatty Construction said in an email Friday that it is in its interest — as well as the interest of the Fort Riley community — to get the hospital open as soon as possible and that it is not sure why the opening has been delayed. The company said it does not believe there are any outstanding safety items, and some pending door frame modifications do not pose a safety risk. The company contends it has built the facility in accordance with the specifications provided by the government.

Hammack assured Moran in the letter that completion of the hospital is not dependent on the resolution of all the legal claims. She also said no new contracts will be required to complete the remaining work.

About 90 percent of the furniture and equipment is in place as of this week, Ware said.

The new facility features an inpatient behavioral health care unit that would provide services to suicidal or severely depressed patients that are now being sent to a civilian facility. The new hospital will also consolidate medical care in clinics now located across the base.

"We are excited to move into the new building," Ware said. "But (the delay) hasn't had any detrimental effect on the patient care that we provide now."

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