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Construction continues at the Replacement Medical Center at VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System, Denver, Colo.
Construction continues at the Replacement Medical Center at VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System, Denver, Colo. (Department of Veterans Affairs)

WASHINGTON — House lawmakers said Thursday that a botched $1.73 billion veterans hospital project in Colorado was so badly handled that the VA may lose authority to build health care facilities at all.

Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee floated that possibility as it blasted the agency for “complete incompetence” and considered a bill that would turn construction of the Aurora hospital over to the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Department of Veterans Affairs angered many in Congress on Wednesday when it requested authorization to spend an additional $930 million to keep the 11-year-old hospital project going. The VA now says it might be completed by mid-2017.

“You’re no longer going to get to decide whether you build hospitals or not,” Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said. “That is where this is headed.”

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., also questioned whether the VA is “up to the task” of building modern hospital facilities.

“I can’t imagine this kind of money in the private sector,” Kuster said. “I know what hospitals cost in New Hampshire — it’s not a billion dollars.”

The chairman and ranking member on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday called the VA request “appalling” and said Secretary Bob McDonald should provide detailed answers on what is being done.

The original estimate on the cost of the Aurora veterans hospital was $328 million when the project began in 2004.

The VA has admitted it made mistakes during the project. Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said it is “unacceptable” in a letter Wednesday to congressional leadership and that the department is taking steps to correct the project, including a request that the Army Corps review it and make recommendations.

A key mistake was contracting construction work before the hospital design was completed, and that led to the long delays and cost overruns on the hospital, said Dennis Milsten, associate executive director in the VA Office of Operations and the Office of Construction and Facilities Management.

“That design continued to evolve and now we find ourselves at this crossroads,” Milsten told House lawmakers.

The VA told Congress that progress will be lost if it does not get the green light to spend the additional $930 million by mid-May.

“Let me use a Marine Corps phrase, you couldn’t lead starving troops to a chow hall,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who sponsored the bill to take the project away from the VA.

The 242-bed, 1.1-million-square-foot facility is designed to serve about 80,000 VA beneficiaries in the Denver area and includes a medical center, spinal cord treatment center and nursing home, according to construction contractor Kiewit-Turner.

Hospital projects often rack up huge construction costs but if completed at the VA’s estimate, it would be among the most expensive in the country. Here are the costs of other similar projects:

In February, the University of California San Francisco opened a $1.5-billion Mission Bay Medical Center. That 289-bed complex includes “advanced imaging suites, a helipad, and a fleet of robotic couriers to deliver supplies, meals, and medications,” according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. For $1.1 billion, Johns Hopkins University opened a new 560-room, 1.6-million-square-foot hospital in 2012 that promised “Xboxes and a basketball court for kids, sleeper-sofas for families, single rooms for all patients, an improved dining menu and extensive soundproofing,” The Baltimore Sun newspaper reported. The new Fargo Medical Center in North Dakota with 384 beds and 1.2 million square feet is projected to cost $500 million and will open in 2017. Coffman said the new price estimate would make the hospital the most expensive in VA history and called for the officials responsible to be removed from the project and fired.

“Perhaps,” Coffman said, “we could use VA bonuses to provide funding for this grossly mismanaged project.”

tritten.travis@stripes.com Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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