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Chairman Roe on Denver VA: This situation must never happen again

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Washington, January 17, 2018 | Tiffany Haverly (202-225-3527) | comments

Today, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, chaired by Rep. Phil Roe, M.D. (R-Tenn.), held an oversight hearing to examine the construction of the new Rocky Mountain Regional Medical Center in Aurora, Colo.

Below are Chairman Roe's opening remarks from the hearing:

Opening Remarks As Prepared for Delivery

Good morning. This hearing will come to order. I want to welcome everyone to today’s hearing, which is the seventh this committee has held examining construction of the new Rocky Mountain Regional Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado. The road to completing this hospital has been extremely long and bumpy.  The groundbreaking ceremony was in 2009. All told, the price tag is at least $2 billion.  This situation must never happen again. But the finish line is near. Mr. Coffman and I toured the medical center last week to see for ourselves. Today we will discuss just how near and take a close look at the facility that has been produced.

This construction debacle changed the way VA builds hospitals. In 2015, Congress mandated that another expert agency take over management of all VA “super construction” projects, which is everything over $100 million. That agency is the Army Corps of Engineers. All available evidence suggests this was the right decision. 

In just over two years the Army Corps has guided the project from less than 60% complete and mired in contractor disputes to 98% complete. VA has accepted all but one of the buildings, the diagnostic and treatment center. But the end of construction is merely the beginning of VA’s activation effort. Activation is never easy, and unfortunately in this hospital’s activation the team must continue to correct design and construction errors.

The design of this facility began over 10 years ago. It has already been well established how architectural novelty and extravagance drove up the construction costs.  In addition to that, so much time has elapsed that the practice of medicine, building codes, and intended uses for the spaces have changed. It is deeply troubling that this new Aurora medical center doubles the square footage of the existing Denver medical center but includes the same number of beds and actually reduces primary care capacity. 

There are also hundreds of errors, individually small but which add up to a significant problem, that must be corrected. Things like a sink in an operating room, surfaces that cannot be cleaned, inadequate air conditioning systems, voltage problems, and an entire data center that must be rearranged. There are always mistakes to be fixed at the end of a construction job, but I have to wonder whether the clinicians who will treat veterans in this facility ever scrutinized its specifications.

Even after the new medical center opens, VA must continue operating the old medical center because presently some of the primary care doctors and the PTSD residential rehabilitation facility have nowhere else to go. When Congress authorized this project, and continued to authorize it through all its struggles, having two major VA hospitals six miles apart was never part of the deal. The local leadership expressed their commitment to closing down the old facility as soon as possible and recouping as much money for the taxpayers from the assets as they can. This committee is going to make sure that happens. H.R. 4243, VA Asset and Infrastructure Review Act, which we reported out of committee in November, would give VA the tools it needs to expedite building a new PTSD rehab facility on the Aurora campus and cut through bureaucratic hurdles to dispose of the Denver campus. And I can tell you after visiting out there last week, this particular facility is a poster child for why we need VA asset review. If any of you have any doubt about that, please make the trip out to Denver and look. It will give you peace to know that we need to do this.

Now is the time to add up what has been gained and lost from this experience. VA added a state of the art spinal cord injury treatment center. I do want to mention this truly was state of the art. That was one of the most impressive parts of my trip was this new spinal cord treatment center. There could not be a better one in the world, and I know the DAV looked at this and helped design it. I want to commend VA for this, and I think once it’s implemented it really will be a state of the art facility for our injured veterans. Also new imaging capabilities, amenities for patients, and a modern facility to serve a burgeoning veteran population decades into the future. On the other side of the ledger, VA lost a significant amount of primary care space and must continue correcting defects potentially up until the day the doors open. And, of course, successive groups of VA managers have spent a mind boggling amount of taxpayer money.

I now yield to Ranking Member Walz for his opening statement.

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