Aurora VA hospital mess irks veterans

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Even as the Department of Veterans Affairs scrambles to get its massive Aurora hospital project back on track, the bureaucratic bungling that further delayed work there is increasing frustration among Pikes Peak region veterans.

An administrative ruling last week threw out a contract between VA and the hospital’s builder, Kiewit-Turner, which has pledged to walk off the job and leave the facility half-built. VA has said it is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to bail out the sinking project and woo back Kiewit-Turner.

Veterans are blasting the agency for the hospital flap that comes after a year of revelations that showed shocking shortcomings in VA’s health care system in Colorado and around the nation.

“How incompetent can you be?” railed Dennis McCormack, a volunteer for several Colorado Springs veterans organizations and a retired Army helicopter pilot.

In a statement to The Gazette, VA pledged to get its latest problem fixed.

“The senior leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs is actively reviewing all possible actions to complete the Denver hospital in the most efficient and effective manner that will serve the best interests of our veterans and their families,” wrote Genevieve Billia, a VA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.

VA refused to answer specific questions, including how the delayed project will impact veterans in Colorado.

Any VA move is drawing Colorado congressional scrutiny. Politicians have pushed for the new state-of-the-art VA hospital for nearly two decades and have frequently criticized the agency for dragging its feet in getting it built.

“We’re disappointed but not surprised,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat.

Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn said any further delay in the facility, which is already nearly two years behind schedule, hurts Pikes Peak region veterans who need expanded access to in-patient care.

“It’s an unfortunate commentary on the state of VA,” he said.

Lamborn and Bennet, who sit on VA oversight committees, expressed confidence that the Aurora hospital will be completed.

A Kiewit-Turner spokesman, Tom Janssen said his firm was talking to the VA and waiting for an acceptable proposal to continue work.

“It impacts veterans because it further delays the project,” he said. “It impacts workers and it impacts the economy.”

The company had its initial contract with VA voided by a Tuesday decision from the U.S. Civilian Board for Contract Appeals, which found the agency “has not comported to the standards of good faith.”

The board found that VA demanded a hospital that couldn’t be built for the allocated budget then refused to seek additional money for the project despite massive over-runs. Originally budgeted at $582 million, the hospital could run nearly $1.1 billion to complete, the board found.

In August, VA opened a new clinic for its Colorado Springs patients, but those who need certain surgeries or in-patient care are still referred to the VA hospital in Denver. Jay Magee, who heads the veteran-aimed Point Man Ministries in Colorado Springs, said many veterans avoid going to the Denver hospital.

“It’s kind of frustrating (with) its lousy parking, its overcrowding,” he said.

VA had pushed the new 1.2 million square-foot Aurora hospital as a fix for its woes, including long patient wait times and outdated facilities. Among proposed amenities is a one-of-a-kind center for spinal injuries.

Colorado VA facilities drew fire in an internal review this year that found long wait times for appointments and allegations that managers falsified paperwork to make it look like veterans were getting better care than they received.

The agency has held town-hall meetings and pledged reforms to clean up its reputation, but some warn that the hospital woes could reverse its efforts to rebuild confidence among veterans.

“Of course it frustrates veterans,” said Jim Tackett, who heads the veteran’s services department of El Paso County.

McCormack said getting the new hospital back underway alone won’t fix VA’s reputation with veterans.

“Now, veterans cannot get the health care they need when they need it,” he said. “That’s what’s killing the credibility.”

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