Construction of the Veterans Administration hospital in Aurora, Colo. — already years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget — was dealt another blow when the company building the facility was told it could walk away from the project.
The U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals in Denver ruled that the VA had breached its contract with construction giant Kiewit-Turner by expecting an unrealistic project far outside the scope of the Congress-approved budget.
The federal appeals board further declared that the VA project — only about half done — "does not have sufficient funds to pay for construction of the entire project as currently designed."
Work at the construction site in the medical complex east of Denver came to an abrupt halt, triggering disgust and dismay from veterans and Colorado lawmakers.
"It's just another slap in the face of vets. I am so furious with the games the VA is playing," said Tom Beck, a 67-year-old veteran in Denver who is the past national commander of the American Legion.
He said he was not angry with the construction company, which had pledged to hire veterans for the project and spent $100 million of its own money to keep construction going despite cost overruns.
Last spring, Beck organized a protest at the construction site with about three dozen veterans, many in wheelchairs, who were angry with the delays that he blames on the VA's bureaucracy and inability to design a construction project.
"There are World War II veterans who are dying every day who were promised this hospital who will never see it," Beck said Wednesday.
VA officials released a statement saying they had been informed of the decision but the agency was still committed to building a replacement hospital: "The VA is currently exploring alternatives and will provide additional information as it becomes available."
Though the long and expensive saga to bring a state-of the art facility to the Denver area has been brewing for more than a decade, ground was not broken in the suburban medical complex until 2009. At the time it was to be one of the largest VA facilities in the nation. The price set by Congress was $600 million.
But the plan was troubled from the start.
Actual work did not begin for two more years as the construction company and the VA wrangled over the scope of the project.
By spring 2013, the construction company complained that the VA had still not delivered a workable plan that fell within the budget.
A year later, the dispute landed in a Denver federal courtroom. By then, Kiewit-Turner said the cost to finish the project had skyrocketed to more than $1 billion and would not see its first patient until 2017 — if not later.
The ruling Tuesday prompted immediate calls for reform from members of Colorado's congressional delegation.
Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican combat veteran who has taken a special interest in the ongoing saga, criticized the VA's handling of the project.
"The VA is clearly not a construction entity, and they need to get out of the business so we can better meet the needs of our veterans by getting these facilities built," he said.
A 2013 General Accounting Office review showed that new VA hospitals in New Orleans, Las Vegas and suburban Orlando, Fla., also faced delays as long as five years and construction costs that had climbed a total of $1.5 billion.
Coffman introduced a bill this year to require that the VA appoint a special project manager from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to oversee delayed VA hospital projects.