Editor's note: The following was written by U.S. Reps. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.)
It is time for the federal government to fulfill its promise to our nation's veterans and get our VA hospitals built, on time and without excessive and avoidable cost overruns. That's why we are pushing bipartisan legislation to reform a broken bureaucratic system that has been harming our nation's veterans and wasting precious taxpayer resources.
As a Republican from Colorado and a Democrat from Arizona, we stand united in our desire to see the Aurora VA hospital and others around the country completed. To do that, we need serious reform of how the VA manages the construction process.
Last year, the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee for Oversight and Investigations (O&I) held a hearing entitled “VA Construction Policy: Failed Plans Result in Plans That Fail.” Additionally, the full House Veterans Affairs Committee (HVAC) held a hearing on “Confronting Persistent Challenges in VA Major Construction and Lease Programs.”
The take-away from these hearings, which is self-evident from the titles, is that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) struggles significantly with construction of healthcare facilities.
At a subcommittee hearing last year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that delays in hospital construction projects in Aurora, Orlando, Las Vegas, and New Orleans are, on average, 35 months behind schedule and $336 million over budget. Those numbers are simply unacceptable, for both taxpayers and veterans in need of care.
As the chairman and a ranking member for O&I, we are disheartened by the findings of our subcommittee's investigations into these projects, detailing gross mismanagement in every aspect of major medical facility construction, including design, operations, change orders and payments to prime contractors and subcontractors.
At best, this pattern of mismanagement indicates utter incompetence. At worst, it shows complete disrespect to our nation's veterans and to the American taxpayer by the VA's Office of Construction and Facilities Management.
We are committed to working with the VA to solve these problems because we should do everything in our power to help the VA provide veterans with quality care.
In fact, the Congress as a whole has made substantial efforts to increase funding for the VA and its programs despite being in a time of serious budget constraints. However, the VA has not only squandered these taxpayer dollars but has also weakened the public's trust in their ability to plan, budget, manage and ultimately construct major medical facilities.
Veterans in Colorado, Louisiana, Florida, and Nevada have been waiting years for their facilities to be completed. The VA claims that the Aurora project will be completed by April 2015 but all evidence points to that deadline being unrealistic. Additionally, the completion date for the project in Orlando was pushed back to December of 2014, making that project now two years behind schedule.
Unfortunately, even after numerous Congressional hearings and inquiries, the VA has done little to convince us they can meet any of their goals on time.
That is why we introduced legislation to help with the completion of the VA medical center in Aurora, as well as other projects. H.R. 3593, the VA Construction Assistance Act of 2013, will implement GAO recommended reforms such as assigning medical equipment planners to major medical construction projects and streamlining the change-order process.
We go one step further by requiring that an emergency manager, referred to as a “special project manager” from the Army Corps of Engineers, independent of the VA, be appointed to provide oversight for each existing VA major medical facility project currently under construction in order to make sure that the GAO recommendations are fully implemented and to take any additional steps necessary to help reduce both the cost and the delays that have plagued these projects.
While this legislation was drafted and introduced late last year, we delayed in bringing it up in order to see if conditions at the four VA hospital construction sites might improve. Unfortunately however, there are no significant changes to warrant any further delays in moving forward with this proposal.
According to the GAO's report dated March of 2013, the Army Corps of Engineers has institutional knowledge and expertise in construction and, unlike the VA, consistently completes similar projects for the Department of Defense on-budget and on-time. The USACE will also provide oversight for the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committees so that we in Congress can be apprised of their progress — or lack thereof — on these projects.
Although the VA does provide great overall healthcare for our veterans, our tenor and posture will be to vigorously highlight that the VA needs a watchdog in order to successfully complete its construction projects. This has been and will continue to be the focus of our Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee during the 113th Congress. Our work, along with H.R. 3593, will help to ensure the VA has proper oversight and expertise guiding the management and ultimate completion of the Aurora VA Medical Center, as well as the other projects highlighted by the GAO.
Our veterans cannot simply hope the VA improves. Rather, we must take action to push these projects forward.
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman is the chairman of the House Veterans' Subcommittee for Oversight and Investigations and U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick is the subcommittee's ranking member.