During a March 25 congressional hearing convened to give initial consideration to a package of veteran-oriented legislation, a highly placed official at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) admitted that recent hospital construction delays and cost overruns have been the result of poor planning by VA. However, said Stella Fiotes, executive director of VA's Office of Construction and Facilities Management, legislation mandating independent oversight of VA construction is unnecessary.
The bill to which Fiotes referred in testimony before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations is H.R. 3593, the VA Construction Assistance Act of 2013. It was introduced last November by subcommittee chairman Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. According to its summary, the bill "expresses the sense of Congress that the management of the major (VA) medical center construction projects...has been an abysmal failure." The proposed Act calls for management of the medical facility projects currently underway in Denver, Orlando, Fla., and New Orleans to be overseen by an independent Army Corps of Engineers project manager.
In her oral and written testimony to the subcommittee, Fiotes argued that the creation of a special project manager would be problematic since it would "add more levels of management and may complicate, if not confuse, the project delivery process." While admitting that poor hospital project planning, with disconnects between architects and builders, has plagued VA with cost overruns and building delays, Fiotes said that Army Corps of Engineers' oversight is now unnecessary since, as her written testimony stated, "The way the (VA) is doing business today has changed significantly since the Orlando, Denver and New Orleans projects were undertaken. The lessons learned and the improvements made have resulted in positive changes and are being applied to help ensure the VA's capital program is delivered on time and within budget."
Along with Fiotes and four other witnesses, Davy Leghorn, assistant director of the Legion's Veterans Employment & Education Division, appeared before the subcommittee. While his oral testimony dealt with a bill to improve the oversight of VA contracts awarded to veteran-owned small businesses, his extensive written submission did, in part, address VA hospital construction practices and encouraged passage of the "VA Construction Assistance Act."
In his testimony, Leghorn said, "When American Legion National Commander Dellinger testified before a joint session of Congress on September 10, 2013, Congressman (Mike) Coffman referred to the Commander's construction background and asked Commander Dellinger if he would please offer his comments, based on his personal experience in the construction industry, about construction challenges that VA was facing in Colorado and other areas. Commander Dellinger responded, ‘Maybe the VA should get out of the construction business, and do what they do best – take care of our veterans.'
"The failures in Florida, Louisiana, Colorado and Nevada with major construction projects have made it clear that VA needs help. The Army Corps of Engineers has a proven track record of managing projects of this nature. This legislation would provide a helpful bridge. Efforts to exhort the VA to pursue this path on their own have not proven successful. Congress needs to act and pass this legislation to help get the VA construction program back on track."