Rain had recently fallen inside the long-awaited Orlando VA Medical Center when members of the Florida congressional delegation gathered Monday near the unfinished facility to find out why the project is off schedule and to determine how much it will exceed cost estimates when done. A roof change is one among hundreds of costly design changes blamed for delaying completion, originally scheduled for October 2012.
The hearing, called by House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., did not produce clear answers about when the medical center will be ready to treat some 90,000 veterans in the region, nor how much it will cost in the end. "A billion dollars," American Legion Department of Florida Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission Chairman Kelton Sweet estimated afterward. "And 2014. I would say about October."
VA and the general contractor, Brasfiled & Gorrie, differ about when the project will be completed and money owed over mid-project design changes. The 1.2-million-square-foot medical center was originally expected to cost $347 million, a figure that has since swollen to $656 million and rising, depending on two uncertain variables: the number of order changes yet to come and what the actual completion date will be.
Stacks of color-coded architectural drawings, some more than two feet deep, and rows of binders describing order changes were arranged in front of the congressional panel and as a backdrop to illustrate the project's many design revisions since ground was broken in 2008. "My single interest is the expeditious completion of this facility for the veterans of central Florida, who have been waiting over a decade for this medical center," Miller said in the auditorium of a brand-new University of Central Florida College of Medicine Health Sciences.
"This project, we need to get off the dime and get it done," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who was joined at the hearing by Reps. Corrine Brown, Gus Bilirakis, Richard Nugent, John Mica, Sandy Adams and Daniel Webster. Brown, a Democrat, and Bilirakis, a Republican, both serve on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
"I have been working on getting a veterans hospital built here for over 25 years," Brown said. "Veterans can't wait.
"I am 78 years old and still no hospital," said Sweet, a military retiree who has been closely involved with efforts to build a new VA medical center in Orlando since the mid-1980s when central Florida was first identified as a high priority for a full-service, around-the-clock inpatient veterans health-care facility. Veterans requiring full inpatient care still have to travel two or more hours to receive it in Tampa. "It's all very frustrating," Sweet said.
As the years passed and conflicts arose over where to locate the facility, funding opportunities came and went. The 2004 Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) report made it clear that Orlando was past due for a VA medical center of its own. Once it was finally budgeted, the new veterans hospital was expected to be a cornerstone in a new "medical city" in southern Orlando that would complement the Central Florida University medical school, two academic research centers, alongside a new children's hospital that is now nearly finished.
"Our VA medical center, which was scheduled to be complete by October of this year, the anchor of this city, is still an empty shadow," Miller said. "Four years and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars later, VA has yet to yield anything near the same results as its neighbors. Brand-new state-of-the-art facilities are all around us. Students are being educated, and VA can't even turn the lights on, much less accept visitors inside their facility."
VA issued a Contract Cure Notice in June to Brasfield & Gorrie. Company officials at Monday's hearing argued that neither final cost nor exact completion date could be set because change orders continue to arrive, disrupting work flow and leading to problems like the unfinished roof that has allowed rainwater into the building, rusting some of the medical equipment inside. "Changes are still coming," explained Jim Gorrie, president and chief executive officer for Brasfield & Gorrie, who added that VA's final list of medical equipment for the hospital has yet to appear. "I can't commit to something I don't have. You have to have a direction. We haven't gotten it yet."
VA and the contractor are meeting this month to resolve the problem and get the project back on track. VA officials estimated that a change of contractor could delay the project an additional eight to 10 months and balloon the final costs even more.
American Legion Department of Florida Assistant Adjutant Jerry Mullenix said veterans service organizations of the state have been deeply concerned over the project and meeting monthly with officials to see how to resolve the problem. "Bottom line is let's stop pointing fingers and get the job done," Mullenix said. "VA and the contractors need to get on the same page. We will definitely be keeping tabs on this."