Senate approves VA funding bill to keep Aurora hospital work going through fiscal year


AURORA | The U.S. Senate formally adopted legislation Thursday afternoon brought by Sen. Cory Gardner to authorize $150 million in funding for the Veterans Administration — enough to keep construction going at the unfinished Aurora VA hospital project going through the end of the fiscal year.

The move comes one day after Gardner and Sen. Michael Bennet filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 to transfer the VA’s construction management authority to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for all projects over $100 million. It’s also after Bennet secured an amendment in coordination with Gardner directing the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the administration and oversight of VA contracts for major medical facility projects regarding design and construction and how they stack up to best practices in the private sector.

Veterans Hospital-Denver

FILE - In this May 21, 2015 file photo, members of a construction crew work at the site of the new Veterans Administration hospital complex, in Aurora, Colo. 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. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Veterans Hospital-Denver

FILE - In this May 21, 2015 file photo, members of a construction crew work at the site of the new Veterans Administration hospital complex, in Aurora, Colo. 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. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Veterans Hospital-Denver

FILE - In this May 21, 2015 file photo, members of a construction crew work at the site of the new Veterans Administration hospital complex, in Aurora, Colo. 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. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Veterans Hospital-Denver

FILE - In this May 21, 2015 file photo, members of a construction crew work at the site of the new Veterans Administration hospital complex, in Aurora, Colo. 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. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

The bill authorizes the VA to use $150 million in its existing FY 2015 budget toward the Aurora hospital project to prevent a work stoppage, which is projected for this weekend without further congressional action.

Bennet cautiously hailed the short-term funding move to keep funding flowing to the Aurora VA hospital project in a statement Thursday afternoon.

“Patchwork funding is not the right way to build this medical center, but the worst and most costly option would be a construction shutdown,” Bennet said in the statement. “The Colorado delegation has continued to work together to push for a full plan to finish the job. Congressional and Committee leaders must continue to work with the VA and the Administration to come to an agreement that identifies funding to complete the project and includes robust accountability measures to ensure the project stays on track. Veterans in Colorado and throughout the Rocky Mountain region have waited long enough. It’s time to get this thing done.”

The bill now faces a vote in the Republican-controlled U.S. House, where U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, has been leading debate on both reforms to the VA and the future of the Aurora hospital project.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, the chairman of the Senate Committe on Veterans Affairs, praised the bill’s passage.

“From the very beginning, this project has been about making sure Colorado veterans get the care they deserve,” Isakson said in a statement.  “I’m proud to join Sen. Gardner in introducing legislation that will allow construction to continue and give the Department of Veterans Affairs ample time to get its act together and develop a workable plan to finish the project.

“Congress has now done everything that it can to ensure the continuation of this project,” Isakson continued. “The VA and the administration must now clean up the mess they’ve made. I urge Secretary McDonald and President Obama to finally take responsibility for this deeply flawed project and develop a workable plan to get the job done once and for all.”

The bill’s passage in the Senate comes about a week after VA Secretary Robert McDonald submitted a letter to Congress outlining proposed ways to finish the Aurora VA hospital by reworking the FY 2016 budget — a move that Isakson labeled “irresponsible.”

“Instead of thoughtfully examining their budget to identify wasteful spending, the VA has developed an irresponsible plan that would make unacceptable, across-the-board cuts to vital programs for veterans,” Isakson said. “Both of the VA’s options – to take money from other VA construction projects or take money from healthcare funding – rob veterans in other parts of the country of the care they deserve. These options are non-starters.”

  • Joe Hardhat

    Fraud and waste is to be expected when it comes to VA construction projects. I do not expect the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to be much more virtuous in the fraud department, but perhaps less waste due to greater competency and rigor.