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 — Congress appeared unwilling Wednesday to allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to raise its spending limit to complete a massively over-budget Denver-area hospital, a move that could bring the troubled project to a halt at the end of the week.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, spoke with other lawmakers during the day and sent a letter to the VA saying a congressional bailout is “nearly impossible.” Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he was disappointed Congress had not found a way forward for the project.

The VA recently notified lawmakers that construction work on the hospital will stop if they did not increase the department’s current spending authorization by $200 million to a total of $1 billion for a project that has frustrated many on Capitol Hill. The 12-year-old project has become one of the most expensive of its type in the country — the total cost is expected to ring in at $1.7 billion — and VA officials have admitted it was mismanaged.

“Right now, VA is essentially asking taxpayers to bail it out of a massive problem of the department’s own creation,” Miller wrote in the letter obtained Stars and Stripes. “If that was not bad enough, VA’s bailout request comes absent an explanation of what went wrong in Denver, without having held anyone accountable for the cost overruns, without a final price tag for the project, and without a specified completion date.

“That is not just a tough sell — it is a nearly impossible one.”

Congress has already agreed to fund $900 million of the hospital. VA Secretary Bob McDonald has said the department found an additional $150 million in the past two weeks by moving funds.

The medical center in Colorado was originally estimated at $328 million and designed to serve 400,000 patients.

Five veterans service organizations — Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Paralyzed Veterans of American — wrote to leaders in Congress on Wednesday, urging them to approve more funding to keep the project going.

“We recognize the enormous cost overrun for the Denver VA project is a blunder that must never be repeated, and we understand the reluctance of Congress to move forward with this project after such a troubled history,” the groups wrote.

“However, unless additional funding is authorized and appropriated, either the Denver project will come to a halt, or other VA facilities around the nation could be forced to face funding shortfalls for critical infrastructure necessary to protect the health and safety of veterans they care for.”

But federal budgets are tight this year, and lawmakers on both sides of the ideological aisle have balked at new funding for the partially build facility. Both parties also oppose allowing VA to cover the construction costs by dipping into a $10 billion pot of emergency funding approved last year to give veterans access to outside health care after the VA created a nationwide scandal by hiding long patient wait times at facilities across the country.

Talks Wednesday on Capitol Hill were unable to find any solution.

"I am disappointed that we have not yet resolved a way forward on the Denver VA Hospital,” Isakson said in a written statement to Stars and Stripes. “It's my hope the administration and the VA leadership will join with us in mapping a path forward that does not hurt the new Veterans' Choice program and that does not add to the burden of the American taxpayer.” Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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