EDITORIAL: Only the White House can fix Aurora’s broken VA hospital project


Just imagine what Colorado could do with $472 million. Desperately needed Interstate 70 expansion. Lagging mass transit. New spaces for state colleges. Working public schools that don’t sap school-district budgets. A host of cultural arts facilities and expansions.

Too bad, Colorado. The Veterans Affairs has plans for that and hundreds of millions more of U.S. tax dollars, not just for critically needed VA medical programs, but for cost overruns on projects that are already costing billions of dollars.

It’s obscene. The VA is building a replacement for its dilapidated Denver hospital on the corner of the defunct Fitzsimons Army campus in Aurora. Rather than just skimp anyway possible to get the hospital built, the VA was able to win congressional approval for a $600-million marvel. The Aurora VA hospital was set to become the ideal for a retired military health care system that had gone awry. To be built as a regional medical center, complete with innovative programs and research facilities, it’s certain to be the envy of every other VA facility in the country. If it ever gets completed.

Stories about cost overruns and delays aren’t new to large construction projects, and from the beginning, this VA project was no exception. But for years now, the cost of this hospital complex and the obvious malfeasance associated with its design and construction are nearly unparalleled.

The staggering cost of the hospital practically drew gasps when it was first announced in 2004. After months of bickering about changes and cost overruns, it was nearly unthinkable that the Aurora VA project was going to cost a whopping $800 million.

That was then. This is now. Now, this nine-building medical center is pushing past the $1 billion mark. This and similar VA projects have gone so far off track that they’ve drawn scrutiny and criticism from Congress, the General Accounting Office and scores of local officials.

The project is awash in complaints from unpaid contractors and sub-contractors, confusion, finger-pointing and mystery.  Aurora Congressman Mike Coffman is right on aiming blame at the VA for nearly hopelessly mismanaging the Aurora VA project.

“Given the potential additional costs and delays due to litigation brought on by VA’s refusal to pay the contractors and subcontractors for honest work and the inevitable additional costs associated with start-up, there is no doubt that this facility will reach an unbelievable cost of approximately $1 billion,” Coffman said  in a statement in response to the hearing. “It seems apparent that Mr. (Glenn) Haggstrom is not the guy to get this job done, and VA is not capable of running a large construction project.” Haggstrom is the VA director for VA construction projects across the country.

Now, contractor Kiewit-Turner is saying that the project is essentially out of money, meaning that more delays are coming. Congress seems powerless to get the VA to get this and other VA projects under control. The only way to get clear answers and a new path out is from the White House. And even though it seems the country has forgotten that this VA hospital needs to open now, not later, to serve the growing need of vets, the Obama Administration needs to put the need of those vets before everything else. 

What a gift it would be for the VA to have completed this critical facility on time and budget and allow Colorado or somewhere else in the country to make use of the hundreds of millions of dollars in overruns associated with the Aurora VA hospital. But for now, we just need the hospital, and it appears that only the White House can make that happen.