The new Veterans Affairs hospital under construction in Denver is already behind schedule and hundreds of millions over cost, but it could become even more of a mess if Congress does not reach a compromise this week on possible fixes for the project.
Lawmakers must authorize new funds to continue work on the infamous site by the end of May and avoid another work stoppage by construction contractors. The project's costs have ballooned from under $400 million to more than $1.7 billion in recent years , through a combination of poor planning and lax management of the work.
But last week, the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs committees rejected plans by VA officials to shift about $800 million from money set aside for health care access expansion, putting the Denver project's future in doubt.
"VA to this day has refused to take this project seriously," Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said in a joint statement. "Instead of putting forth a realistic plan ... VA has essentially demanded that taxpayers subsidize the department's incompetence."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the Senate committee's ranking Democrat, echoed that sentiment, noting that the Denver disaster is just one of a series of major VA construction projects currently over budget. He said the department "must go back to the drawing board" to find a new way to pay for the project.
But VA officials say there isn't time for that.
According to documents obtained by Military Times, VA will come back to Capitol Hill this week with a slightly modified request for lawmakers, to re-allocate about $200 million in spending authority to keep money flowing to the project into the summer.
Without the money, the memo warns, "some subcontractors would likely not return to the project in the future, leading to substantial further delays and cost increases."
Last summer, lawmakers approved $5 billion in construction and lease funds to improve veterans' health care access options as part of the Veterans Choice Act. VA officials have argued the Denver work qualifies under that goal, but need approval from Congress to move the money between accounts.
The uncertainty over funding and costs has led to construction delays and higher prices for subcontracting work, which in turn has contributed to the project's exorbitant price tag.
Subcontractors walked off the construction site in December after a judge found VA to be in breach of contract, and questioned whether the department had funds to ever pay for the work.
Building resumed a few weeks later under a temporary deal, but likely would be halted again if Congress leaves for its Memorial Day recess without shifting the funds.
But Isakson and Miller have said the VA needs to find efficiencies and eliminate waste to pay for the overruns, not pull money assigned for other work. Whether the skeptical lawmakers will agree to the smaller transfer remains to be seen.
In the memo, VA Secretary Bob McDonald notes that the department has already identified about $150 million in other unused accounts that could help cover the Denver costs until a better long-term funding plan is finalized.
The department also plans to delay work on a community living center and post-traumatic stress residential rehabilitation program. "While we do not believe that this is the best decision for Colorado veterans," the memo states, "we believe that it is the only option available to VA that would satisfy congressional requirements."
VA officials have promised continued investigation and possible punishments for past mistakes with the project, something congressional critics have charged has been sorely lacking thus far.
Meanwhile, Colorado Democrats Reps. Ed Perlmutter and Diana DeGette late last week blasted Republicans for "stalling the effort to give the authority and the money needed to keep this project going" at the last minute.
"For all of the legitimate and deserved criticism of the VA, Republican Committee Leaders are now taking out their anger on Colorado veterans," they said in a joint statement. "This is foolishness. The project must get finished."
Veterans groups say they're disgusted with the ongoing problems but want to make sure patients in the region aren't the ones left suffering because of the mistakes.
"The Denver hospital project may be the worst federal construction disaster in recent memory, but that fault lies with VA, not the veterans who still need care," Michael Helm, American Legion national commander, said in a statement. "If construction is halted by another work stoppage, the project may be irretrievably lost."
Both committees are scheduled to hold a joint hearing Wednesday to discuss future priorities with a coalition of veterans groups.
Lawmakers are scheduled to leave town Thursday, barring a late schedule change.