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EDITORIAL: One VA construction boondoggle after another

The Department of Veterans Affairs has become a symbol of federal incompetence. In addition to neglecting our veterans through unacceptable delays in processing disability and compensation claims, the VA has routinely harmed them by making them wait months for appointments for routine care and covering up excessive wait times.

And if all of that wasn’t bad enough, the VA has proved itself useless when it comes to building hospitals, as well. According to members of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs’ Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, major VA medical facility construction projects typically run an average of 35 months late and $360 million over budget — each! The delays and overspending have led to a congressional battle regarding mismanagement of VA construction projects across the country.

This isn’t news to Southern Nevadans. A sparkling new VA hospital opened in North Las Vegas in August 2012 at a cost of about $1 billion to taxpayers — despite the fact that it had no land costs because it was built on federal acreage. It took six years to finish, with construction costs soaring far, far beyond a $286 million initial estimate. Yet during the previous decade, four new private-sector hospitals opened in the valley at a total cost — including paying for land — of $468 million. Those four hospitals added more than 600 beds, three times the number of beds at the new VA hospital — at less than half the cost.

The VA center took so long to build the emergency room was outdated the day it opened; the North Las Vegas ER had to be expanded at additional cost.

That boondoggle pales in comparison, however, to overspending and delays involving a VA hospital project in Aurora, Colo. The original, 2005 design estimate for the Aurora VA facility was $328 million. By 2008, changes in design led Congress to raise that number to $568 million. In 2010, lawmakers increased the budget again, to $800 million. Today, virtually all of that money has been spent on the project, and it remains only half-finished, which has infuriated area veterans.

With building costs soaring and the VA falling behind on its payments to the general contractor, Kiewit-Turner, the company sued. The U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals agreed with the contractor’s assessment that the project could no longer be completed for less than $1 billion, and it allowed the company out of its contract. Kiewit-Turner packed up and left, leaving 1,400 workers out of a job, resulting in VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson going to Colorado to apologize and negotiate the workers’ return.

Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, an Army and Marine Corps combat veteran who represents the district where the Aurora facility is (slowly) being built, says he plans to introduce legislation that would strip the VA of its authority to manage construction projects and give that authority to the Army Corps of Engineers instead.

That would be a reasonable first step. But the VA shouldn’t be building hospitals in the first place. It shouldn’t be supervising our veterans’ health care, either. When is enough enough? The VA needs to be privatized — yesterday. Our veterans deserve better.

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