AURORA – Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Mike Coffman accused the Veterans Affairs Department on Friday of lying and ignoring clear warnings that its new Denver hospital couldn’t be built within budget or on schedule.
But they joined other members of Congress from both parties in vowing to complete the medical center and demanded that those responsible for massive cost overruns be punished.
Bennet and Coffman sat in on a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee field hearing in Aurora, not far from the site of the half-finished hospital, which is now expected to cost $1.73 billion – nearly triple the estimate VA gave last year.
Three members of the committee attended, along with Colorado’s two senators who aren’t on the committee – Bennet, a Democrat, and Republican Cory Gardner. Two U.S. representatives from Colorado also attended: Coffman, a Republican, and Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat.
Coffman said VA officials repeatedly told the Colorado congressional delegation the hospital could be built for about $600 million despite a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office saying it would cost more.
“We had meeting after meeting with the VA when we were lied to. We were lied to. Again and again and again,” Coffman said.
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, who testified at the hearing, didn’t directly respond to Coffman’s charges, but in other exchanges, Gibson said most of the key decisions on the project and many of the claims about its cost were made before he joined the department.
Bennet said the VA ignored warnings about the cost from the contractor building the hospital and some of its own employees.
“How is it possible that an institution could be that immune to that level of information and that arrogant?” Bennet asked Gibson. “That’s about a culture of disrespect, a culture that doesn’t actually believe in service to our veterans here in Colorado and a culture that is unwilling to learn from obvious facts.”
“That’s changed,” Gibson said, noting he had met with the Denver hospital builders and was working to pay subcontractors who were owed money on the project.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the Veterans Committee, pressed Gibson on whether he would support an outside investigation, possibly by the Justice Department – opening the potential for criminal charges.
Gibson said he would.
Gibson also disclosed that he had asked the VA’s inspector general to investigate the failures on the Denver project, but he didn’t elaborate. In an email to The Associated Press, the inspector general’s spokeswoman, Catherine A. Gromek, said only that the matter is under review.
It’s the second internal VA investigation into the Denver project. An administrative investigation board has been interviewing witnesses under oath, but the department hasn’t released details.
Congress has been pressuring the VA for weeks to find out what went wrong and fire those responsible.
“We’re going to hold them accountable,” Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, the committee chairman, said Friday.
Isakson and Blumenthal criticized the VA’s plan to finish the hospital by siphoning $830 million from a $5 billion fund Congress set up to improve veterans’ access to health care with construction, hiring and efficiency measures.
“Veterans elsewhere cannot be forced to sacrifice just because of the catastrophe here,” Blumenthal said after a tour of the construction site Friday morning.
Coffman and Gardner have proposed diverting the VA’s multimillion-dollar bonus budget to the Denver project until it is finished.
“This cost has to come out of VA’s hide,” Coffman said.
Steve Rylant, president of the United Veterans Committee of Colorado, told the panel that canceling bonuses could drive away medical professionals, but Isakson said the target would be the VA construction officials, not caregivers.
All the senators and representatives present insisted that the hospital should be completed, despite some suggestions that it could be scaled back or even sold.
“I think we have complete agreement that we do need to find the money to complete this project,” Bennet said.
After touring the construction site, Isakson said that not finishing the hospital “would be a stupid mistake.”