Under continued fire on Capitol Hill for its over-budget, much-delayed hospital in Aurora, Colo., the Dept. of Veterans Affairs has proposed to draw the additional $830 million it says it needs to complete the job from $5-billion that Congress authorized last year for adding to VA's health-care workforce and repairing facilities nationwide.
The request, which VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson discussed at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on April 15, focuses on the Veterans’ Access Choice and Accountability Act, which President Obama signed into law last August.
The measure, also known as the “Choice” Act, totals $16.3 billion, including $5 billion for expanding VA’s health-care capacity in staffing as well as building maintenance and small construction projects.
The Choice Act doesn’t specify how much of the $5 billion should go for facilities. But Gibson indicated that if Congress allows a shift of $830 million to the Colorado project, there would be about $1 billion left in that account.
The proposal sparked concerns from some lawmakers, who worried that the $830 million would be diverted from other VA needs elsewhere around the country.
Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) slammed the VA's management of the Colorado project, but said he wasn't “closing the door" on the VA's proposed funding transfer.
Still, Miller also said he wouldn’t agree to “throwing good money after bad without receiving much more information from VA.”
Rep. Corinne Brown (D-Fla.) said she was concerned about a transfer to the Aurora Colorado project jeopardizing addressing needs across the VA system.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) said he was “not totally sold” on the shift and preferred that VA ask for direct appropriations for the $830 million.
But Gibson said, “I don’t have a Plan D. If we don’t get the funding here [from a Choice Act transfer], I don’t know where we get the funding.”
Another disclosure at the hearing was that when the 1.2 million sq ft project is finished, veterans’ needs in the region the hospital will serve will require an additional 550,000 sq ft of space, Miller said VA had told him.
Miller, who referred to the project as a “debacle,” added, “On the day it opens it will apparently be too small.”
Other committee members blasted VA for its handling of the project. Brown called it a “mess,” and Rep. David Roe (R-Tenn.), a physician, termed it a “fiasco.” He added, “I am past frustrated.”
As he had said in a January appearance before Miller’s committee, Gibson acknowledged VA’s major errors and poor management of the project, and apologized. “It will not happen again, at least not on my watch” he added.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which is in the process of taking over the project, is working on a new, “more refined” cost estimate, said Lloyd Caldwell, Corps director of military programs. That estimate should be ready in a couple of months, he said, adding, “Our objective is to come in lower “ than $1.73 billion.
The estimate will be the basis for a new contract with its contractor team, a joint venture of Kiewit and Turner, to finish the Aurora project. The target completion is now 2017.