Congress Keeps Searching For Accountability Over The Expensive, Delayed Aurora VA Hospital

The Aurora VA Medical Center on February 2018.

The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs oversight committee suggested that VA officials misled Congress in testimony last month about the veterans hospital under construction in Aurora.

Dr. Phil Roe, a Republican from Tennessee, told Colorado Matters that his committee got conflicting testimony from VA officials about the services that will be housed in the new Aurora facility, and about cost overruns and constructions delays. Roe said he wants someone to be held responsible.

"When someone comes and testifies in front of my committee here… I want the truth told. And I don’t want to look up later and find out that the truth was not told… And I’m not just talking about making a mistake or not understanding a process. We’ve all done that. But I’m talking about coming up and deliberately misleading me."

Roe sent a letter to the VA earlier this month detailing his concerns and what he believes was misleading information. It says, "… some of the responses [from VA officials] seemed to evidence a callous disinterest not only in taking responsibility, but also in basic familiarity with unpleasant details of the project."

Roe said he expects "some action" to result from his protest, which could include firing VA officials. His office has not yet received a reply to the letter, and in response to an inquiry from CPR News, a VA spokesperson wrote, "VA appreciates Chairman Roe’s concerns and will respond to him directly."

Last month’s hearing was Congress’ latest discussion of a hospital project that is four years late in opening, and will cost more than three times the original budget. The final estimated cost is about $2 billion.

Because of cost overruns a PTSD treatment center was not constructed, but Roe told Colorado Matters he expects it will, ultimately, be added to the Aurora campus.

It was also revealed recently that the old hospital in Denver has nearly twice as many primary care teams as the new facility will. Roe said that makes "no sense," but it may work out in veterans’ favor in the long term.

"What we’re going to have to do is take those primary care teams that are left in the old facility and then find new outpatient spaces for them out in the community where the veterans really live, instead of making them drive in [to Aurora]."

Highlights From The Interview

On whether any individuals have been held responsible for the cost overruns and delays in opening the new hospital:

"In short, no. One of the things we did do in 2017 was pass an accountability whistle blowers act to allow the [VA] secretary to dismiss people who are not performing properly… And it’s been used. I think they have about 1,400 people that they have moved from this massive organization. Remember, the VA has over 300,000 employees. It’s a huge organization."

On why he wasn’t satisfied with testimony from VA officials in January 2018:

"I think the thing that frustrates me the most, I know when I went in the operating room [as a physician], I knew who was responsible… It was Dr. Roe who was responsible. And that’s what we should’ve had here. And that’s what we should’ve had here, where somebody took responsibility and said, ‘I’m going to run this project, bring it in under budget and on time.’ And that’s why we got the [Army] Corps of Engineers involved. We’ve just said, the VA can no longer be allowed to do this."

On what excites him about the new hospital:

"The spinal cord rehab beds… it’s a new service. It is a spectacular building — I can just say that as a physician — and I think that the quality of care there will be second to none anywhere in the world."

On whether the current ethics controversy involving VA Secretary David Shulkin could affect the Colorado hospital project:

"I think Dr. Shulkin is doing a great job… I think you need to let this story play out and get the truth out, and I think Dr. Shulkin should continue in his position."

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