Veterans frustrated by long delays in opening of new VA hospitals
It was a day of shiny shovels and high hopes on that hot August morning in 2009. Politicians and dignitaries beamed at the cameras and congratulated themselves for finally breaking ground on a new medical facility dedicated to veterans, at the time projected to be the largest of its kind in the nation.
“Today is the beginning of a promise being fulfilled,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter, whose district would hold the hospital. Colorado’s governor at the time, Bill Ritter, was there. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, who resigned May 30, hoisted a shovel that day.
Vietnam War veteran Artie Guerrero, wounded in combat and in a wheelchair from multiple sclerosis, had been pushing for the facility for years to replace the crowded 1950s-era hospital in central Denver. The cost was estimated at $600 million, with a completion date of 2013.
That was then.
Nearly five years later, the project is still less than half finished even though work is continuing. The expected cost has risen to $1 billion, and the earliest patients will be seen is 2017 — if then.
New VA hospitals in New Orleans, Las Vegas and suburban Orlando, Fla., also face delays as long as five years and construction costs that have risen a total of $1.5 billion, according to a 2013 review by the General Accounting Office.
The long, expensive saga of the Aurora veterans medical center and the other hospitals is separate from the widening scandal over patient wait lists that ultimately forced Shinseki’s resignation. But many say the delay in getting new facilities online also compromises veterans’ healthcare.
“There is a lot of bad management and poor leadership. This is just one little piece of the larger problems with access to healthcare for veterans who have earned it,” says Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “I honestly don’t care who is to blame. At the end of the day the veterans are disgusted. This is absolutely ridiculous.”
The VA and construction company Kiewit-Turner are locked in battle in a Denver federal courtroom, asking the judge overseeing a special review process called the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals to sort out their differences.
On Memorial Day, a group of about three dozen veterans, Guerrero included, returned to the site of the groundbreaking — but this time they were anything but happy. Holding one of the original ceremonial shovels, Guerrero rolled his wheelchair to the construction site in an angry protest over what he calls another broken promise to veterans.
“Who do you believe? Who do you trust? Why does this take eight years?” Guerrero said. Now 69, he suffered gunshots wounds and exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam, and said he had relied on VA treatment since he came home wounded to the former Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in 1967.
Often he has to wait two to three months for appointments, a delay he believes would be shortened with the new facility. When he needed shoulder surgery, he became so frustrated he ended up going to a civilian hospital and paying with secondary insurance. Vets with spinal injuries who were promised care at the new hospital still have to travel to Albuquerque, San Diego or Seattle.
Tom Bock, a 67-year-old former national commander of the American Legion, organized the Memorial Day protest. As the Denver retiree looked across the vast medical campus just east of Denver, now home to University of Colorado Hospital and Children’s Hospital Colorado, he was incredulous that other large facilities could be built while construction of the nearby veterans’ hospital “is still screwing around.”
Las Vegas is facing a five-year delay and a $260-million cost increase after officials scrapped plans to share space with an Air Force base. In New Orleans, the VA decided sharing space with a university would not work, preferring a stand-alone facility, a decision that cost two years and $300 million, according to the GAO. In Florida the location was changed three times, with the price increasing by more than $400 million.
In Colorado, an early idea to house veterans’ healthcare services in several floors of the planned University of Colorado Hospital met with swift opposition by veterans groups and some policymakers. Instead, it grew to become a 182-bed, stand-alone facility.
Years of wrangling over the scope of the project followed. It was not until 2012 — two years after the groundbreaking — that construction began with a budget of $604 million and a promise for completion in just more than three years.
But in summer 2013, Kiewit-Turner filed a claim against the VA, saying the agency never delivered a design that could be built for $604 million, according to Tom Janssen, a spokesman for the construction company. It is that claim being heard now.
“Because the cost of the current design far exceeds their budget, it has forced us into a position of having to finance the project,” he said.
The VA’s Office of Acquisitions, Logistics and Construction said it could not comment on construction issues because the matter was in litigation.
This year, Reps. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) introduced legislation to corral costs and speed construction at VA hospitals. The legislation calls for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide oversight to construction projects.
Daniel Warvi, public affairs officer for the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System, said wait times for appointments at the current facility, averaging about a month, were not excessive.
But Carlos Peralta, a veteran of the Gulf War and the invasion of Panama, said he waited two months for an X-ray and four months for an MRI when his knees and back went out. In pain and hardly able to move, the only way he could see a doctor, he said, was to go to the emergency room. In May, he got a letter saying he could see a pain specialist in June but that treatment would not begin until later in the summer.
It’s not clear that a new hospital would change everything, but Peralta is convinced it would help. He says the VA has offered him good doctors working out of a facility that is crowded and depressing.
“What disappoints me most is they try to cover it up with new paint and flat-screen TVs,” he said. “We don’t need flat-screen TVs. We need a new hospital.”
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