DENVER — Construction crews are returning to work at the veterans hospital outside Denver after a last-minute deal with congressional leaders avoided a shutdown of the half-finished project.
But the really heavy lifting will be done 1,500 miles away in Washington.
The U.S. House agreed Thursday to raise the project’s spending cap by $100 million, enough to continue work for three weeks. The Senate is expected to act Friday.
Congress and the Veterans Affairs Department still must find up to $830 million to finish the vastly over-budget hospital without taking services away from veterans elsewhere and possibly scale back the project.
The VA also must persuade skeptical lawmakers that it’s serious about punishing those responsible for the problems and making internal changes to avoid a repeat.
“They’ve been offering us crumbs of reform,” said Tyler Sandberg, a spokesman for Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman. “We want the whole loaf.”
The hospital in suburban Aurora is expected to cost $1.73 billion, nearly three times the estimate the VA gave last year. The VA said Monday that it was nearing the $800 million spending cap Congress put on the project and work would have to stop next week if Congress didn’t act.
Contractor Kiewit-Turner said winding down the work and then cranking it up again would add up to $200 million to the cost.
The deal reached Thursday doesn’t give the VA any additional money but allows it to spend funds it has on hand. It raises the spending cap to $900 million, enough for three weeks of work.
That means the VA and Congress have three weeks to work out a long-term deal or again face a shutdown.
“I’m pleased the House finally acted to avoid a shutdown on this project,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo. “But I’m not pleased we will continue to kick the can down the road.”
The ambitious, 184-bed medical center is a collection of a dozen large interconnected buildings that would replace an old, overcrowded facility operating in Denver.
The reasons the costs escalated so sharply have yet to be fully explained. The VA has said the plans weren’t complete when work began, and VA construction executives tried to switch to a different design-and-build process too late.
At least two internal VA investigations are underway, and the department says all the key executives on the project have been replaced — some were demoted or transferred, and another retired a day after investigators interviewed him under oath. But no one has been fired, angering many in Congress.
The VA wanted to finish the project with money siphoned from a $5 billion fund Congress set up to resolve an embarrassing national scandal — long wait times for veterans to get health care. Lawmakers balked, saying the VA needed to come up with a different funding plan that didn’t deny services to other veterans or raise the federal deficit.
“Veterans elsewhere cannot be forced to sacrifice just because of the catastrophe here,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in Aurora last month.
Coffman suggested diverting the VA’s multimillion-dollar bonus budget to the Denver hospital. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson called that “a lousy idea.”
Congress also wants the VA to make major internal changes to avoid a repeat — perhaps turning over responsibility for major construction projects to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Veterans expressed relief that a deal was reached.
“The veterans are the ones that would be hurt if the project got shut down,” said Steven Rylant, president of the United Veterans Committee of Colorado, a coalition of veterans groups.
The committee is not taking a position on where the money should come from, said Rylant, who often sports a button that says “BTDT,” which stands for “Build the damn thing.”
“Seems like there ought to be $1 billion or $600 million somewhere,” he said.