By: Ken Olsen
Construction of a new Denver VA Medical Center is finally set to begin after more than a decade of delays that have contributed to the near tripling of the price tag.
VA awarded a $580.2 million construction contract to Kiewit-Turner Joint Venture on Nov. 17, four days before veterans and U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., planned to hold a protest if the long over-due contract wasn’t finalized.
“We announced we were meeting on the hospital site Nov. 21 with shovels for a demonstration or a celebration,” said Ralph Bozella, president of the United Veterans Committee of Colorado and member of The American Legion’s National Executive Committee.
Hundreds of other veterans attended the contract signing celebration at the former Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center site wearing lapel pins with a shovel and the letters “BTDT” – which stand for “Build the Damn Thing.” Sales of the lapel pins, created by American Legion Past National Commander Tom Bock, have raised $1,500 toward the construction of a new Fisher House at the new VA hospital site. The lapel pins also are indicative of the skepticism that remains about completion of a new Denver VA Medical Center.
VA still hasn’t said when hospital construction will begin, Bock says. “Since they have not established a target completion date, other than sometime in 2015, I feel they will just plod along with the same intensity they have been using for the past 27 months – since the official ground-breaking ceremony in August 2009.”
VA says renovation of an existing building that will house a mental health clinic, VA administrative offices and a Department of Defense clinic started last spring. Meanwhile, the agency acknowledges finalizing the contract for the final piece of the $800 million project has been a slow process.
“Negotiations were a little more difficult and a little more lengthy than we anticipated,” said Jordan Schupbach, spokesman for the Denver VA Medical Center. “I can say, as a veteran, I’m completely confident this project is moving forward and moving forward appropriately.” Schupbach is an Air Force veteran who deployed in support of the war in Afghanistan in late 2001.
The new Denver VA Medical Center will have 182 beds, including a 30-bed spinal cord injury/disorder center. It will serve veterans from Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Kansas and Nebraska.
United Veterans of Colorado – which includes the American Legion and other veterans service organizations – will watchdog hospital construction and make sure veteran-owned contractors have the opportunity to bid on the work, Bozella said. “Our primary goal is to have them build a hospital,” he said. “And we want to make sure veteran contractors get these jobs.”
There are ample reasons for Colorado area veterans to be wary. Replacing the 60-year-old Denver hospital has been marked by more than a decade of bureaucratic debacles and delays. The University of Colorado offered VA free land at Fitzsimmons in 2000, where it was building a new medical school and hospital complex. That opportunity vanished two years later when VA Secretary Anthony Principi walked away from plans for a joint UC-VA hospital, saying the $288.6 million price tag was too high.
In 2004, the Capital Asset Realignment for Enchanced Services (CARES) Commission announced the Denver VA Medical Center was one of three veterans hospitals in the nation most in need of replacement. But subsequent plans to build a new Denver VA Medical Center were scuttled, first by VA Secretary Jim Nicholson and then by VA Secretary Dr. James Peake.
Bozella, Bock and other members of the American Legion met with Shinseki in March 2009 and asked him to personally review a white paper detailing the need for a new Denver VA hospital and a spinal cord injury center. Ten days later, Shinseki announced support for the project. When Congress finally authorized funding for the latest proposal in May 2010, the total price – including land acquisition, building design, and initial excavation – had reached $800 million.