In a first-ever move toward a joint hospital project with a nonmilitary partner, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs may unite with the University of Colorado, which plans to build a hospital at the former site of an Army hospital.
"This is a chance to relook at how veterans' care is provided," said Dennis Brimhall, president and chief executive officer of University of Colorado Hospital.
The site is the former Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colo., which the Army vacated in 1999. University of Colorado Hospital plans to build a 300-bed hospital to replace its existing 36-year-old facility in downtown Denver, as well as build numerous ancillary facilities at the Fitzsimons site.
At its existing location, 250-bed University of Colorado Hospital is a neighbor of Denver's 162-bed VA Medical Center, which was built in 1951.
Keeping up with the Joneses could be good for the VA, which wants to replace its hospital because, among other things, it still has four-bed patient wards with shared bathrooms.
The VA is looking at integrating inpatient care with the university at the Fitzsimons campus, which will break ground next month. The earliest a joint facility could be operating is in five years.
Time is of the essence. Because of the University of Colorado's development plans for the Fitzsimons site, the VA has until 2004 to decide on a partnership. Otherwise, the university says it must assume that the VA is not in the picture.
VA Secretary Anthony Principi has given the go-ahead to the consulting firm Booz Allen & Hamilton to follow up on a report that Atlanta-based consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates prepared for Denver's VA Medical Center and University of Colorado Hospital.
That report estimated that total integration of the two hospitals in a joint facility of 450 to 500 beds at the Fitzsimons site could save the VA hospital $1.2 billion from now through 2020 when compared with maintaining and periodically renovating the VA's existing structure.
The total capital and construction cost of renovating and maintaining the current VA facility would be $5.3 billion through 2020. Building and maintaining a fully integrated facility with the University of Colorado would cost $4.1 billion over that time, according to the consultant's report.
Joe Dean, spokesman for the Denver VA hospital, said the facility's age makes it difficult to improve the patient environment.
"For many of the same reasons that (the university) hospital is moving, we want to move," Dean said. "Anytime we expand anything in the facility, we lose something. That includes loss of beds."
Though acknowledging the cost-saving advantages of an integrated facility, at least one veterans group is questioning whether veterans will be lost in the shuffle.
"We have to be concerned that the veterans are going to get the access to care they need and not be swallowed up by someone else's mission," said Joy Ilem, assistant national legislative director of Disabled American Veterans. "We're all for it if they can save money or work off the same (magnetic resonance imaging) machine, but when it really comes down to the care that veterans need, I think we'd like to see something more tangible about how this is going to work. This is at a more philosophical stage."
But Dean and Dennis Brimhall, president and chief executive officer of the university hospital, said any joint project would be sensitive to the veterans' identity. Veterans would have a separate outpatient unit, but as care intensifies, they would be more likely to be mixed in with the university's patients.
"Once you get in an operating room, identity is irrelevant," Brimhall said. "You want the best care, and hopefully the care is as good for the veterans as it is for everybody else. Rather than running two (operating rooms), each doing only so many cardiac surgeries, you can have one that does more."