Mistakes and mismanagement have led to more than $1.5 billion in cost overruns and years of delays in recent major Veterans Affairs construction projects, and veterans groups say that's only the start of the department's problems.

By their estimates, VA planners are up to $65 billion short in their construction goals for the next decade, and the management problems and rising demand for veterans medical services could cripple the department in years to come.

VA officials on Wednesday told lawmakers they are working at finishing overdue projects and fixing the behind-the-scenes issues. But members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee characterized the problems as yet another example of mismanagement and disorganization at the department, which has been buffeted by scandals over the past year.

"It is long past time for these projects, marred by bureaucratic ineptitude, to be complete," said committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.

The construction issues gained headlines last month after the contracting company behind a planned Denver VA hospital — originally scheduled to open in early 2014 — stopped work because of cost overruns and payment problems with the department.

The facility's price tag was originally pegged at around $600 million, but VA officials now believe the project will cost well over $1 billion to complete. They've agreed to bring in experts from the Army Corps of Engineers to advise on project completion and launched an investigation into mistakes made.

Officials from the Government Accountability Office said the Denver project is just one of four major construction projects with cost overruns in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The average delay on completion of those facilities is 35 months, if they proceed as planned from this point.

Last week, a coalition of veterans groups listed reforms to VA construction as one of their major legislative goals of 2015, noting the long-standing problems and dramatic funding needs for coming years.

They've advocated for better long-term planning for major facility construction, not just immediate fixes to the broken system. Ray Kelley, legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the average age of VA facilities is more than 60 years old, and officials need to plan for not just two years ahead but also the next two decades.

"Over the past few years it has become very apparent that VA's ability to control costs and deliver major construction projects on time is and should be viewed as a great concern," he said. "Veterans are not being served when construction projects take years longer than expected to complete and the price tags inflate."

Several lawmakers questioned whether VA should be involved in future hospital construction at all, noting that partnerships with private or other public institutions might be a better use of taxpayer funds.

Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson called the Denver problems "unacceptable," but said major reforms to the department's facility management have already been put in place. New project review and scheduling procedures have been implemented in recent months, new oversight boards have been established, and officials involved with construction projects now report directly to top VA management.

"This does not excuse our failure to have these measures in place years ago, but it does mean that ... these and other measures are being applied now," he told lawmakers. "Notwithstanding these changes already in place, I am confident that our current construction management practices can be further improved."

House and Senate lawmakers have promised close scrutiny of VA funding and projects for the coming year, after massive reform measures and more than $16 billion in new funding were approved by Congress last summer.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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