Construction site of new Orlando VA Medical Center. Department of Veterans Affairs photo.

VA construction projects under review

Appearing before a March 27 hearing of the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs (HCVA), a panelist from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) said that "veterans are not affected" by ongoing delays at several of VA’s major construction projects. The panelist was Glenn Haggestrom, executive director for VA’s Office of Acquisitions, Logistics and Construction. But his words of reassurance had little effect on a bipartisan series of questions from committee members that highlighted their concern over how those delays, some lasting several years, may have affected VA facilities and their quality of health care.

Between 2003 and 2005, Congress allocated major construction funding for new VA medical centers in four locations: Las Vegas, Denver, Orlando and New Orleans. HCVA’s hearing focused on problems at these sites in project management, construction delays, increased costs that dramatically affect veterans in each region and the overall VA construction budget.

"As the VA health care system has grown, it appears that we have come to a point in the department’s major construction and lease program where the administrative structure in VA is an obstacle that is not effectively supporting the mission," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the committee. "As a result, our veterans are the ones who are left without services, and our taxpayers are the ones left holding the check."

Delays in constructing these facilities have caused VA medical center directors to not only use fee-based care to meet the needs of veterans, but also force veterans in these regions to travel hundreds of miles to other VA facilities.

The four new medical centers, with costs exceeding $3 billion, are estimated to be between four months (Las Vegas) and two years (Orlando) behind schedule. The Las Vegas VA facility is scheduled to open in 2012, despite several delays and extensions to that project. Of the $442 million allocated in recent funding to 55 major medical lease sites, only five are open, 38 are behind schedule and 14 are delayed three or more years. Delays and changes at Orlando have doubled the original cost estimates for that single project.

While the hearing highlighted significant delays at the Orlando facility, it was representative of similar situations at the other sites. VA officials admitted ultimate responsibility for construction problems at these facilities, they also shared that blame with architects, engineers and even construction companies.

VA testimony identified lessons learned and actions taken towards addressing construction problems. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki designated the Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction as the single point of project accountability within the department. On-site management was also identified as a problem, and VA has begun hiring more than 30 additional engineers to oversee major construction projects. Finally, VA also points to the Strategic Capital Improvement Process (SCIP) as a solution that will benefit the overall prioritization of the major, minor and non-recurring maintenance projects.

The American Legion remains concerned with the overall management of VA’s major construction accounts. While SCIP has identified $53 billion to $65 billion in major and minor construction costs, both accounts were underfunded by more than $4 billion in Fiscal Year 2012 and again in the Fiscal Year 2013 budget proposal. Without adequate funding, the SCIP process will not single-handedly meet the needs of our veterans.

Although not addressed in the hearing, overall funding for activating these new VA facilities must be considered.

"The American Legion remains convinced that funding for activation of projects, whether community clinics or VA medical centers, must be included in the overall project funding," said Tim Tetz, the Legion’s legislative director. "It should not be left for future consideration in other accounts. Not only will this allow for a true understanding of the costs of these facilities, but will also eliminate delays in opening due to funding shortages, or prioritization of allocation."