VA’s Colorado money pit still draining cash

Jonathan Kaupanger
January 19, 2018 - 2:09 pm
New VA Colorado VAMC

(Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers)

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The VA’s money pit of a hospital finally has an opening date. It was originally set to open in 2013 but after 10 years of construction and being seriously over budget, the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado is set to open August 11.

So, just what exactly are American taxpayers getting for the $2 billion project? Will first, there’s still a bit left on the VA’s tab for the new hospital. There’s still around $340 million to spend on furniture and medical equipment.  And then, when ready (more on this later), the VA will need about $350 million to fix up the over 60-year-old current medical center in order to sell it.

But let’s not dwell on the negative. The new 1.2 million square foot medical center comes with a lot of positives.  The new facility’s layout is a major improvement. The 31 acre site has 12 structures, all connected by a 1,100 foot long concourse going through the center.  The place includes 900,000 square feet of parking space for staff and patients.

Sustainability is a major part of the  medical center’s design. Photovoltaic panels, solar evacuated tubing and a curtain-wall system maximizes daylight, which contribute to a reduced energy cost.  (At least that’s one cost that is reduced with this place!)

Here are some other new additions to the center:

Rehab gym, pool and an outdoor courtyard with therapeutic elements and different surfaces to practice walking.

A 30-bed spinal cord injury clinic vets in the area had to travel to Albuquerque or Chicago for spinal cord treatment.

Patients will have their own room and each one comes with its own window, lighting and temperature controls.

Visiting family can rest on bunk pullouts.

Sounds good so far, right? But wait, let’s look at what taxpayers aren’t getting for their $2 billion and change – which by the way, is just about half of what VA asked Congress for to fund the Choice Program.  Or, if you want to look at it from a different perspective, $2 billion could give each Colorado veteran just under $5,000.

Although, the new medical center is about twice the size of the older hospital, the primary care rooms have been cut by half. The seven of the VA’s patient care teams, which serve about 8,500 veterans, won’t be working out of the newer center either.  And, even though there’s a research building on the new campus, most researchers will stay in Denver or in other leased space.

The $2 billion price tag for the new medical center didn’t include a Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) center, so the older center will need to stay open. While the older center holds a PTS center, its still in dire need of renovations and the VA will probably keep it open for the next few years. which means you guessed it–the VA will still be paying rent for the building.

The quarter-mile long Concourse at the Department of Veteran Affairs Replacement Medical Center that is under construction in Aurora, Colorado serves as a central connector for clinic buildings, diagnostic and treatment centers, in-patient buildings, a chapel, and more. When complete, the 1.2 million square-foot and three parking garages with 2,242 spaces will serve more than 400,000 veterans and their families in the Colorado area.  (Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers)

Congress has already told the VA they have $10 million to build the PTS center, so, even before construction starts, it’s over budget. It’s estimated that a new PTS facility will cost about $13 million. Oh, and any guesses why they left the PTS  facility out? According to VA’s Executive Director at the Office of Construction and Facilities Management, Stella Fiotes, “I believe that PTSD was removed at the time of the authorization appropriation to bring the cost down.”

And Ms. Fiotes, well, she’s a gift that keeps giving for taxpayers as well. She was originally the executive in charge of this construction project.  When costs and schedules spun out of control, the VA promoted her to the position she’s in now.  Thankfully, Congress decided that construction projects that cost more than $10 million should no longer be controlled by the VA, the Army Corps of Engineers manages those now.  Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), wants to take things even further and limit the VA’s control to only projects that cost less than $10 million.

(Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers)

The VA isn’t even sure that all planned services will be offered when the Aurora facility opens. Right now, the Denver VA hospital has a staff of around 2,787, but they are already 23 percent understaffed.  VA has hired 199 new employees, but another 421 positions need to be filled.  If the VA doesn’t have staff to provide the services, then chances are it’s not happening.  We’ll have to wait and see on this one, but Denver has a pretty tight labor market to begin with.

There are about 375 items on the punch list. Some high-voltage power outlets have to be converted to low-voltage while some low-voltage ones need to be made high-voltage.  The psychiatric inpatient care areas has sharp or protruding fixtures in some areas that pose suicide risks.  There are cabinets that need to be replaced because they can’t be cleaned or disinfected. Did I mention the pharmacy was designed by a genius? (I’m rolling my eyes when I write that by the way)  Glass windows are sealed tight and so prevent staff from talking to or even handing over medications to patients.  Walls where equipment is supposed to be mounted are too weak and will need to be fixed before anything can be installed.

It’s really too bad that the VA didn’t have enough time or money to get this right in the first place.