More than eight years after breaking ground and going well over budget by $1 billion, a sea of controversy is parting and revealing a new VA hospital in Aurora.
Don’t expect the controversy to end with the construction, local veterans and congressional officials say.
Bernie Rogoff has been visiting the soon-to-open Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center hospital in Aurora every few weeks for meetings. He’s sat through myriad meetings as he’s helped steer the project since the early planning stages.
Next week, when he walks through the halls, the colossal project will finally be a state-of-the-art veterans care and research facility.
Rogoff, an 88-year-old Korean War veteran, calls the hospital one of his loves — which is easy to believe. He’s a fixture in the veteran community in Colorado. He’s the executive director of the Education Foundation of the Colorado National Guard, serves on Aurora’s Veterans Affairs Commission, and he has sat on the board for United Veterans Committee of Colorado for years.
He and nearly a dozen veterans pushed for the new hospital more than a decade ago. Why?
“(The old Denver hospital) was state-of-the-art 57 years ago,” Rogoff said. “Every department has now been brought into the 21st century.”
It’s what the community is most excited about for the hospital.
Sallie Houser-Hanfelder, the director of VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System, said the hospital is meant to feel more like a gathering place, and that the process of healing — every part of it — went into the design of the facility.
“We wrap ourselves totally around them,” she said, surrounded by art in the hospital’s main concourse.
The art is all made by veterans and is for sale. Houser-Hanfelder said art can be a significant part of healing, and it wasn’t overlooked in the new hospital, along with the general aesthetic of the facility.
A whole new notion of healing
Warm light pours through the large windows around the hospital. There will be a variety of vendors, mostly owned by veterans, along the main concourse, too.
House-Hanfelder said she sees the hospital as a place where veterans can get medical care, but they can also connect with other veterans. Both are a part of the healing process.
Beyond the obvious upgrades, a major perk of the Aurora space adjacent to the Anschutz Medical Campus is a new 30-bed Spinal Cord Injury and Disorders Unit. It’s not expected to be open for another 180 days after the hospital opens. That’s mostly due to some additional hiring and training that goes into opening a brand new unit, House-Hanfelder said.
An outdoor courtyard is specifically dedicated to those spinal cord patients. It doubles as a sort of training course for patients new to using a wheelchair, too. The large steps throughout the courtyard are good practice for learning how to navigate wheelchair accessible steps, said VA hospital spokeswoman Brandy Morrison. A little farther out are different turfs — tall grass, rock, mulch — setup so that patients in wheelchairs can acclimate themselves to different terrains.
The hospital itself is double the size of the Denver location. It’s now 1.2 million square-feet on 31 acres. The space now includes a therapy pool, 44 new treatment rooms, four new ICU beds and one additional PTSD bed.
The new facility offers a lot more privacy than the old location, officials say. Each ICU patient will get their own room and bathroom.
Each room is furnished with a couch to make visiting family a lot more comfortable. The only rooms that double up are the spinal cord rooms, and that’s on purpose, Morrison said. She said studies have shown people recover better from spinal injuries when they interact with more people. But even in those rooms, patients get their own bathroom.
There are nine fewer surgery beds, six fewer psychiatry beds and the number of medical rehabilitation beds is still at 10.
The first floor will remain open at the old Denver hospital to house the PTSD treatment center, but House-Hanfelder said she’s confident that will eventually be moved closer to the new campus later on. The PTSD unit will remain in Denver for an estimated three to five years, according to the VA.
The new facility will also be home to research. House-Hanfelder said the VA has always been a leader in research, and now Aurora will see that, too. The new center will have a leading research group on suicide, a health and science research group and conduct clinical trials as well.
Researchers will work closely with University of Colorado Anschutz and its researchers, as well as researchers at CU Boulder. The new location is perfect for that kind of collaboration, House-Hanfelder said.
To prepare for the move, which will begin late next week, the more than 2,000 employees have undergone more than 40,000 hours of training, House-Hanfelder said. She added that the staff is ready, as are a lot of other people. Particularly because of the controversy that has surrounded the project.
“My hope is that we’re turning the corner to positivity,” House-Hanfelder said. “It’s been a daunting, daunting task.”
The new veterans
For a six-year stretch that included the first Gulf War, Leanne Wheeler served in the U.S. Air Force. After that she transitioned into a role with a defense contractor before settling in Aurora and launching her own business.
These days, the 50-year-old woman said she leans on the VA for all of her healthcare needs, a rarity in the system.
In her time visiting VA facilities, and during her lobbying efforts with the United Veterans Committee of Colorado, she said she has seen a shift in the makeup of the local veteran community.
When people think VA care, they might have a picture in the mind of an older vet, probably male, probably white and maybe battling complications from Agent Orange exposure or some ailment related to old age.
But after the more-recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s not the profile of today’s local veterans, she said.
The veterans leaving those wars are more likely to be women, she said, and people of color. They are also younger than that image of a veteran many still might hold.
“There are more and more vets that look like me and sound like me,” she said.
The new influx of veterans also are more likely to survive injuries that probably would have killed a service member in a prior generation, she said.
Those once-fatal but now-survivable injuries have combined with a steady stream of new vets needing care to put a strain on the capacity at the old hospital in Denver, she said.
To illustrate that demand, Wheeler pointed to nearby Fort Carson — the Army base near Colorado Springs where thousands of Army soldiers in the most-recent wars deployed from and returned to — seeing between 850 and 1,300 soldiers a month separating from the military and suddenly requiring VA care.
But long-term projects like this one make that tough, she said, because developers know that by the time the doors actually open, much of what’s inside will already be behind the times.
“You have a short window that is technology rich,” said Wheeler, who is a software engineer in her professional life and lobbied hard for the new hospital through the United Veterans Committee of Colorado.
When a project blows past its budget and its timeline more than two times over, those problems only worsen.
But she said the current leadership at the hospital — namely House-Hanfelder and her staff, which took the helm a couple years ago — are aware of those problems, and ready to make the necessary improvements.
“We’ve known for some time that we would be building this knowing some of it would be obsolete by time it opens,” she said.
Wheeler said that for now, this week, as the sprawling hospital opens, the important thing — what excites vets like herself — is that the hospital is now, finally, real.
“We finally will have the facility available,” she said. “It is a commitment made and a commitment kept, and that I am glad about.”
Overdue on way over budget
The opening of the hospital comes with an equally large exhale for many beyond the hospital director and local veterans. The project landed in the news time and time again over the years for being grossly over budget — to the tune of more than $1 billion — and behind schedule.
When the project was first initiated it was in Congressman Ed Perlmutter’s district — before district redrawing that put it on Congressman Mike Coffman’s turf. Perlmutter’s involvement was critical to getting the project off the ground, Rogoff said.
The hospital has remained a priority for Perlmutter, too.
“It has been a long road with many fits and starts, but we are finally here. We’ve finished the damn thing,” Perlmutter said. “Through four presidential administrations and 11 VA Secretaries, the opening of this facility marks a new chapter in veteran care in the Rocky Mountain region. With state-of-the-art technology and equipment, this medical center will deliver the high-quality healthcare our veterans need and deserve.”
Jason Crow, a Democrat running for Coffman’s seat in the 6th Congressional District, was involved early on, too. He said around 2008 there was a major push across the country to partner with private healthcare providers and do away with entire VA hospitals. But when the group of Colorado veterans took up the case, he found a place in fighting for the project. Namely as the chair the UVC’s Fitzsimons Oversight Committee, where he helped draft the white paper making the case for the hospital.
That journey since the funding was approved in 2009 is one Coffman knows well, as he led a fight on getting the project under control. In 2014 Congress passed the VA Construction Assistance Act, introduced by Coffman, to require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take over the project, which had been ballooning in costs. By June 15, 2015, the spending cap for the hospital was at $1.05 billion — it was originally estimated the facility would cost $300 million. In October, that cost had again increased to $1.6 billion.
Coffman said the project was severely mismanaged and introduced additional legislation to ensure that future “super construction projects” would have more oversight than just the department.
Along the way, the congressman penned several letters to the VA and both the Obama and Trump administrations, including one letter that called for firing Stella Fiotes, who was promoted to acting head of the VA’s division of acquisition, logistics and construction, despite overseeing the influx of costs at the Aurora facility as chief of the VA’s office of Construction and Facilities Management.
“I’m grateful that we are where we are,” Coffman said. “The hospital is going to do a lot of great things. It has state-of-the-art equipment. It’s a step in the right direction, but it is too bad that it is five years behind schedule and a little over a billion dollars in cost overruns.”
Coffman said he would have liked to have seen the research facility have more shared space with CU Anschutz, especially as there is a lot of collaboration between the two. And the first floor of the old hospital will remain open — which Coffman points to as an obvious symbol of inefficiency.
Homelessness and hospitals aren’t an automatic connection.
But the new hospital will be a boon to the Denver metro homeless population, especially those in the Aurora area that receive services from the Comitis Crisis Center, said James Gillespie, community impact and government relations liaison for the center.
Still, that doesn’t mean it’ll be a magnet for homeless vets.
“The Crisis center is located only steps away from the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center. It means for our population having these services, the primary care services, the mental health services, in such close proximity to our shelter will naturally create a stronger continuum of care,” Gillespie said. “To be so close will be an incredible asset to the homeless veterans we serve.”
The location of the new center will mean clients at Comitis will not have to deal with figuring out transportation, a major barrier to receiving needed services, Gillespie said. Veterans won’t have to deal with bus routes and struggling to reach appointments in time and would be more likely to take advantage of care.
“When homeless veterans show up at VA hospital for (care), they’ll have an opportunity to contact Comitis to provide a bed or get them enrolled in the government per diem program,” Gillespie said. “Removing the variable of transportation is critical.”
Throughout the Denver metro area, the Housing and Urban Development Point in Time survey estimated this year there are about 560 homeless veterans. While that is a sharp drop from just 2016 when the same survey found more than 700 veterans were homeless in the area, the number of homeless veterans in the nation has been on the rise.
In 2017 the nation saw the first increase in the number of veterans without a home, when the number rose about 40,000. More than 25,000 of those veterans live in some form of shelter, like Comitis.
When the VA opens up a new medical facility, it likely won’t have a major affect as a magnet for homeless vets in the region, despite rumors of the opposite happening. In one case, the VA opened up a medical center in Orlando in 2006. According to the HUD survey, which is just one point in time, the number of homeless veterans in Orange County receiving housing at a shelter where the facility is located was at 206. That number rose to 225 in the two years after the center opened.
Gillespie said he would like to see as many veterans as possible without a home receive services at the new VA center, whether they were from Aurora, the state or across the country.
“Veterans belong to all of us,” Gillespie said “I would encourage our local community to look at how they can partner with local service providers or the VA as a community to make sure all veterans are taken care of.”
- Sentinel reporters Ramsey Scott and Brandon Johansson contributed to this report.