$1.7B Aurora VA hospital is still incomplete, will likely be understaffed, document says
By MARK K. MATTHEWS | The Denver Post | Published: January 13, 2018
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — In a matter of weeks, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is expected to announce that it has all but completed construction of a new hospital in Aurora -- a major milestone for a project that drew national outrage in 2015 when the agency admitted it was $1 billion over budget.
But according to a congressional document obtained by The Denver Post, the Jan. 23 target will be little more than an illusion as the team building the $1.7 billion facility expects to spend several more months finishing hundreds of items on its to-do list.
Even then, the project is unlikely to reach its full potential when it opens later this year.
Officials at the VA are "pessimistic" about filling all the jobs at the new hospital in time for its planned summer opening, which "may reduce services initially offered," according to the latest findings.
Old hospital likely to stay open at least 3 years
Also, because of the way the new hospital campus was built, there won't be enough space for facilities such as a rehabilitation center for veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder.
The shortcoming means it's likely the VA will keep open for at least three years the Denver hospital that the Aurora campus is supposed to replace.
The timeline could stretch even longer if Congress doesn't approve the VA's request to spend millions of additional dollars to construct another building at the new campus, although the whole situation is going to cost taxpayers either way -- since keeping open the old facility is also expensive.
"Operating both (VA medical centers) will also generate excess security, logistics, facilities management, food service, and administrative staffing costs in the low tens of millions" of dollars, according to a draft document prepared for the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
The new list of problems is sure to draw renewed attention to the project, which largely has gone unnoticed since 2015, when the VA revealed the project was $1 billion over budget and years behind schedule.
The admission briefly put the project's funding in jeopardy -- as several members of Congress questioned whether it should give the VA more money to finish it.
Ultimately, they relented, but the episode prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take charge of the project and compel the VA to change how it undertakes large-scale construction.
Congressional hearing on hospital set for next week
On Friday, three members of Congress toured the construction site: Colorado lawmakers Mike Coffman and Ed Perlmutter, and Phil Roe, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the House veterans committee.
His panel has a hearing planned for Wednesday that will examine the project's progress.
Said Coffman, a longtime critic of the VA's management of the new hospital: "I certainly remain very frustrated in terms of where we are right now."
In response to questions about the project's progress, VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the agency "continues to work closely with its project partners to resolve issues as they arise."
In a separate document obtained by The Denver Post, a top VA official acknowledges many of the issues outlined in the congressional document.
But Stella Fiotes, acting principal executive director of the VA's Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction, said they were being managed correctly -- including the add-on items on the construction to-do list.
"It is common on complex projects like this one, to defer items that can be more cost effectively and efficiently handled through a follow-on contractor," she wrote.
One piece of good news from the federal document is that the VA probably will not need more money to either finish construction of the new facility or outfit the campus with furniture and medical equipment -- costs that are expected to run $1.7 billion and about $340 million respectively.
But plenty of work remains.
Document calls construction's status 'misleading'
Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and contractor Kiewit-Turner anticipate most construction work will be done this month, that milestone is "misleading," according to the congressional findings, because "many design-error corrections, renovations and final completion items that are necessary before activation have been excluded from the definition of 'construction completion.'"
Those include replacing dozens of power outlets and upgrading the facility's psychiatric offices because "dozens of fixtures" there pose a suicide risk because of features such as sharp edges.
Kiewit-Turner plans to finish some of this work -- about 75 items -- by May, but an additional 300 items are left on the construction to-do list that must be completed by a contractor that has yet to be selected.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had "planned to depart the construction site (in January) but now will continue managing construction through at least June," according to the four-page congressional document.
"Activation activities are ongoing and the facility will open to serve our local veterans in August 2018," Fiotes wrote.
Hundreds of hospital jobs remain unfilled
Another worry outlined in the congressional document is the ability of the VA to find employees to staff the new Aurora facility.
The existing hospital has 653 vacancies out of a staff of 2,787 -- about 23 percent -- and that of the "421 positions that need to be hired during activation, VA has onboarded 199 people, with 222 remaining," according to the congressional document.
The tight Denver labor market, they continued, has made VA officials pessimistic about their ability to fill all the slots by the time the campus is ready. While the lack of staffing won't delay the hospital's opening, it probably will lead to holes in what services are offered.
Coffman, R-Aurora, said his biggest worry was that the VA plans to continue operating the Denver facility after the new Aurora campus opens.
"I think the VA really needs to get out of there," he said.
PTSD rehab work to remain at old hospital
Notably, a PTSD rehabilitation facility and seven patient-care teams will remain at the Denver hospital for at least three years, according to the congressional document.
That's for two reasons: A planned PTSD building at the new campus was nixed earlier because of the project's escalating cost, and there's not enough space at the new hospital to house the seven primary-care teams.
"The new (VA medical center) has 34 primary care exam rooms compared to 60 at the existing (VA medical center), and it cannot accommodate seven existing (patient care) teams serving 8,500 veterans," according to the House document.
The three-year timeline comes from the expectation that the VA ultimately will build another building on the new campus.
Fiotes, of the VA, acknowledged as much.
"VA plans to keep the existing hospital in service until the PTSD building can be completed at the new campus," she wrote. "Additionally, seven Patient Aligned Care Teams (PACT) will remain at the current facility to serve veterans until VA conducts further analysis on how to optimize their impact for local area care based on where those PACT teams can continue to function."
Even so, she remained upbeat about the nearly complete medical campus -- despite its long history of problems.
"The new facility will provide a much more up-to-date and positive veteran and family experience," she wrote.