The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken over management of a Veterans Affairs Department hospital construction project in Aurora, Colo., the VA announced this week. Critics have pointed to the troubled development as a symbol of VA construction mismanagement.
The project, originally priced at $328 million, is now expected to cost $1.73 billion. The VA has asked Congress for an additional $830 million to complete the work. Glenn Haggstrom, the VA's chief of construction, resigned last month.
Legislators, particularly those in Colorado's delegation, were furious that Haggstrom was allowed to retire with full benefits, instead of being fired for mismanaging major hospital projects in Orlando, Fla., New Orleans and Las Vegas, in addition to the Aurora project.
Haggstrom's more than $60,000 in bonuses while overseeing those projects was found especially egregious, and Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) has proposed using VA bonus funds to offset the additional cost of the Aurora hospital.
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson spoke with the media at the Aurora construction site Thursday and called Coffman's proposal “a lousy idea,” explaining that it would hurt VA employees, including doctors, nurses, custodians and cemetery workers—many of whom are veterans themselves.
“The only lousy idea I've heard so far is that the VA hasn't fired or disciplined a single employee for this monumental mismanagement,” Coffman said in a release. “I have put forward a serious solution that forces accountability on an organization that has failed this nation and it's no surprise they don't like it.”
Coffman had already introduced a bill Jan. 28 that would have fired the VA from overseeing the Aurora project and turned its construction management over to the Army Corps.
Coffman's bill also would ban the VA from having any authority over major construction projects in the future.
Gibson declared Thursday that the hospital will get built—no matter who is in charge—and that 2017 was the target for completion.
“Is the federal government going to leave this incomplete?” he said. “The answer is 'no,' this project's going to be finished.”
The hospital is being built as a joint venture between Kiewit Corp. and Turner Construction Co. and those contractors also expressed confidence.
“Kiewit-Turner has been and will continue to work closely with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on this important project for Colorado-area veterans,” said Tom Janssen, a spokesman for Kiewit.
The Corps of Engineers has not always been as enthusiastic. In a Sept. 12, 2014 letter to Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, the Corps' Director of Military Programs, Lloyd Caldwell, argued against a previous Coffman bill. That measure, known as the VA Construction Assistance Act of 2014, called for appointing a special project manager from the Corps to oversee the four VA hospital projects.
Caldwell, however, was more positive at a Jan. 21 committee hearing when referencing a 2007 Memorandum of Agreement that had resulted in a much better working relationship between the Corps and the VA. Prior to that agreement, Caldwell said the support the Corps provided to VA construction projects was valued at around $2 million, but it has since grown to $1.59 billion.
“While the Corps will assume a major role in the construction execution for Aurora Hospital, the VA, as the project's proponent, is still responsible for project requirements, resourcing and facility transition to full operations,” Caldwell said at the hearing. “By using our project delivery process, we are confident that the Corps, acting as Construction Agent, can complete construction of the Aurora Hospital for the VA and meet the needs of our veterans and their families.”
Ground also was broken April 1 for a $152 million mental-health and research building at the VA hospital in Seattle.