Legion to Congress: ‘take swift actions’ to fund Denver VA project

The American Legion and four other veterans service organizations sent a joint letter to congressional leaders on May 20, urging them “to take swift actions and procure necessary funding to continue and complete the construction of the replacement for the Denver VA medical center.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs came under fire from Congress for gross mismanagement of the Denver project, which has been hobbled by cost overruns and construction delays. Originally budgeted at $328 million, the projected cost now stands at $1.73 billion. Thus far, Congress has balked at providing more funds to complete the facility.

The letter, addressed to majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate, noted that the number of Denver-area veterans enrolled in VA health care is projected to rise 13 percent over the next two decades.

Michael D. Helm, the Legion’s national commander, said last week that Colorado’s veterans cannot be held accountable “for a disaster they did not create – we need to ensure that the Denver hospital does not founder. VA and Congress must find a way to see this project through.”

The letter echoed Helm’s concerns: “Most urgently, if additional authorization and funding are not secured within the next week, the Denver project will be halted, likely leading to increased costs to re-start the project and necessitating a new general contractor, further delaying the time to complete it.”

Kiewit-Turner, the project’s contractor, ordered its workers off the job last December after a federal appeals board ruled that VA had breached its contract. The workers returned two weeks later after VA Secretary Robert McDonald brokered a deal that brought in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as project manager.

Some critics of the Denver project, the letter noted, want to abandon it altogether and contract the private sector to provide health care to veterans. But “we believe veterans deserve better. VA is the world’s leader in researching and caring for the unique and interrelated wounds, injuries and illnesses associated with military service.”

In a May 18 memorandum to Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, McDonald proposed that Congress pass a short-term bill to raise by $200 million the authorized funds for the Denver project. Then VA would “repurpose and reallocate” $150 million in fiscal 2015 dollars to continue construction.

The next day, McDonald wrote to Miller that “If VA does not have authorization to spend these funds prior to May 24, 2015, we expect Kiewit-Turner to cease work on the project and commence demobilization, adding cost and delay.”

In the letter, the Legion and the other VSOs said “it is imperative that a desire to hold VA and some of its employees accountable not take precedence over the paramount goal of ensuring the best health care outcomes for veterans of eastern Colorado, which we are convinced must include the replacement medical center in Denver.”

The letter reads, in full:

Dear Majority Leader McConnell, Minority Leader Reid, Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Pelosi:

On behalf of the millions of veterans we represent, for the benefit of the 400,000 plus veterans who live in Colorado, and particularly for the approximately 90,000 wounded, injured and ill veterans who currently rely in whole or in part on the Eastern Colorado Health Care System, we are writing to urge you to take swift actions and procure necessary funding to continue and complete the construction of the replacement for the Denver VA medical center.

There is no question that the Denver VA replacement project has been badly managed and fraught with problems from its origins, now over 12 years in duration. The government has already spent over $600 million to build this new facility for the veterans of eastern Colorado, yet VA will likely require another $700 million or more to finish it, open it, and get the job done. Most urgently, if additional authorization and funding are not secured within the next week, the Denver project will be halted, likely leading to increased costs to re-start the project and necessitating a new general contractor, further delaying the time to complete it.

We do not excuse the mistakes, false starts, and wrong turns associated with the replacement of the Denver VA medical center, and we join with you and others calling for full accountability for those responsible for this debacle. However, our primary concern is the health care of the men and women who have served this nation, and at present there is no better alternative for them than to see this project completed.

The existing downtown Denver VA facility is decrepit and incapable of providing quality care for the veterans seeking VA health care, and the number of veterans enrolled in the Denver area is projected to rise 13% over the next 20 years. Furthermore, because it is located eight miles away from its academic affiliate, the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Aurora, hundreds of medical residents and other health care personnel are being shuttled and bused daily to care for veterans downtown.

While some critics have proposed abandoning the project altogether and contracting for eastern Colorado veterans’ care with the private sector, we believe veterans deserve better. VA is the world’s leader in researching and caring for the unique and interrelated wounds, injuries and illnesses associated with military service. This includes veterans with spinal cord injuries and diseases who were promised the construction of a 30-bed spinal cord injury/disorder center that would obviate the need to travel hundreds of miles to centers in Long Beach or Albuquerque to receive treatment for decubitus ulcers, pulmonary dysfunction, and treatment of other conditions in which time is of the essence.

While the private sector also treats many of these same conditions – including paralysis, amputations, severe burns, blindness, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – there is no comparison with the frequency, severity and comorbidity routinely seen by VA physicians. Furthermore, when a veteran suffers one of these traumatic physical or mental injuries in service there is a direct and dramatic impact on the entire body. As these service-connected conditions worsen over time, they both complicate and are complicated by other health conditions—especially those brought about by advanced aging. Over the past two decades, VA developed a comprehensive, holistic and preventative model of care that is the only choice for many disabled veterans and the best option for most veterans. That is why we support the need to get this facility finished and serving veterans as soon as possible.

We recognize that the enormous cost overrun for the Denver VA project is a blunder that must never be repeated, and we understand the reluctance of Congress to move forward with this project after such a troubled history. However, unless additional funding is authorized and appropriated, either the Denver project will come to a halt, or other VA facilities around the nation could be forced to face funding shortfalls for critical infrastructure necessary to protect the health and safety of veterans they care for. As The Independent Budget has repeatedly pointed out in recent years, the level of funding requested by VA and appropriated by Congress to maintain VA’s hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities has been significantly less than required to provide timely and safe access to all veterans seeking VA care. For these reasons, it is vital that Congress provide new funding to complete the Denver VA project.

We certainly understand the anger and frustration that you have expressed in working to develop a solution to this problem. We have supported, and will continue to support, all reasonable efforts to ensure that VA spends the precious funding provided to it by Congress in the most effective and efficient manner possible. VA can and must find ways to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse whenever and wherever they can be identified.

However, it is imperative that a desire to hold VA and some of its employees accountable not take precedence over the paramount goal of ensuring the best health care outcomes for veterans of eastern Colorado, which we are convinced must include the replacement medical center in Denver. At the same time, the requirement to provide additional funding for the Denver project should not be a reason to cut back funding for other critical infrastructure projects that serve veterans throughout the country.

While VA today faces serious challenges, the answer is not to abandon it or to destroy it. Instead, we must honor the service and sacrifices of our nation’s heroes by creating a modern, high-quality, accessible and accountable VA health care system, in Denver and around the nation. Anything less breaks President Lincoln’s promise to “care for him who shall have borne the battle.”

Respectfully,

Garry J. Augustine, Executive Director, Washington Headquarters, DAV (Disabled American Veterans)

Robert E. Wallace, Executive Director, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States

Verna L. Jones, Executive Director, The American Legion

Homer S. Townsend, Jr., Executive Director, Paralyzed Veterans of America

Matthew Miller, Chief Policy Officer, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America