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Colorado expects tough fight to fund $1.73 billion VA hospital

March 18, 2015
In The News

WASHINGTON — It may be government money, but the extra $930 million needed to finish a new VA hospital in Aurora won't come cheap.

That was made clear this week by U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who stands as gatekeeper between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and its request, made public Tuesday, to spend up to $1.73 billion on the Colorado facility.

The new cost estimate is more than five times the VA's initial $328 million estimate and significantly more than what department officials expected even last year.

Miller chairs the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs and in the aftermath of the VA's announcement he spelled out, in no uncertain terms, what he thought needed to happen before Congress approved more money for the Aurora hospital, which has been plagued for years by legal and financial problems.

"One thing is certain: Congress will not authorize another dime until VA gets its construction affairs in order," Miller said in a statement.

What's more, Miller wants the VA to figure out a way to pay for the price hike without interrupting services for Colorado veterans. He also demanded the firing of those responsible for what he called the "biggest construction failure in VA history."

"The only acceptable form of accountability is purging those responsible for the problems in Denver from the VA payroll," said Miller, who holds significant sway in Congress on veterans issues.

The demands aren't surprising but they play into a new fear now stalking Colorado's congressional delegation — that their colleagues on Capitol Hill could balk at the new funding request and leave the state with a half-finished hospital.

"Our delegation has its work cut out for us to get the additional funding, but our veterans need and deserve this facility and I won't stop working until they get it," said U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, in a statement.

In a sense, the destinies of the delegation and the VA now are intertwined. If the VA doesn't meet the new congressional demands and the price hike isn't funded, then everyone tied to the project could be on the hook.

It's one reason why every single member of Colorado's congressional delegation —save one — joined together Wednesday in a press statement showing solidarity.

First and most immediately, Colorado leaders — especially our congressional delegation — must band together to make sure this project is completed so that our veterans can access the facilities and treatment they have earned," said U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, in a statement.

The one lawmaker missing from the list was freshman U.S. Rep. Ken Buck — the only member of the delegation who wasn't in Congress last year.

Asked about his absence, Buck, R-Windsor, said he shared the delegation's outrage at the cost but explained that the new $1.73 billion price tag was giving him pause.

"I'm very disappointed and frankly disgusted and I'm not going to commit to any future spending unless, one, people are held accountable; two, they find ways to reduce that overall cost from $1.7 billion; and three, there are some very serious reforms made at the VA," he said.

That a member of Colorado's own delegation is hesitating at the $1.7 billion figure is a testament to the fight ahead for the state's lawmakers.

Not only will they have to contend with fiscal conservatives in the House and Senate, but there's a worry too that legislators in other states could decide now is the time to make an example of the VA — with the Aurora hospital getting crippled or cancelled in the process.

Adding to the pressure is time.

As it stands, the VA's budget for the Aurora hospital is set at $800 million. But lawmakers expect all that money will be used by either late spring or early summer.

The ticking clock means that the VA and Colorado's delegation have only a few months to convince Congress to authorize an additional $930 million in spending — or some bridge amount — or risk another slowdown or shutdown.

The VA already is the process of reprogramming about $100 million from inside the agency, but that still leaves another $830 million that has to come from somewhere.

Broadly, there's the belief that the VA will have to shuffle money in the short-term to get the project through to the fall — when Congress' budget process usually starts to come together.

In the meantime, the pressure is on Colorado to convince Congress to fund the project while twisting the arm of the VA to ensure some measure of accountability.

Tyler Sandberg, an aide to U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, said the Aurora Republican was looking at ways to exert pressure on the VA, including targeting an account available for bonuses.

"As much as I'm angered by the mismanagement of this project, as a combat veteran I know that we have an obligation to see that this hospital is completed and that everything that can be done will be done to bring down the cost, that those responsible for these cost overruns are held accountable, and that the necessary reforms are put in place to make sure that this never happens again," Coffman said in a statement.

Mark K. Matthews: 202-662-8907, mmatthews@denverpost.com or twitter.com/mkmatthews