The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) largest construction projects are massively over budget and behind schedule, a government watchdog told Congress today.
Four of the Department’s largest medical center construction projects are, on average, $366 million over budget and almost three years behind schedule, according to Lorelei St. James of the Government Accountability Office (GAO). St. James testified before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
The GAO examined four VA construction projects in Las Vegas, Orlando, Denver, and New Orleans, which experienced cost increases ranging from 59 percent to 144 percent, according to St. James’ written testimony.
“We recognize that some cost increases and schedule delays result from factors beyond VA’s control,” St. James said in her written testimony. “However, our review of VA’s largest projects indicated weaknesses in VA’s construction management processes also contributed to cost increases and schedule delays.”
Today’s hearing was the latest congressional broadside against the VA, which has faced intense criticism for its slow processing of disability claims for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other conflicts, and other alleged failings.
Among the VA’s construction weaknesses are poor communication among VA offices and the building contractors, St. James said, citing an instance when two VA offices gave conflicting directions to contractor officials, resulting in an expensive mistake.
Additionally, St. James said the VA does not always employ medical equipment planners in its construction projects. This resulted, in one instance, of VA staff with “limited experience” trying to determine how new medical technologies could fit into a planned facility.
“In Orlando, medical equipment specifications changed several times and led to cost increases of at least $14 million in addition to schedule delays, as these issues forced VA to suspend construction until the issues were resolved,” St. James said.
Schedule delays on VA construction projects can have serious repercussions for veterans.
“Delayed care is denied care,” said Subcommittee Ranking Member Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.).
“When the VA does healthcare right, it is second to none,” Subcommittee Chairman Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) said. However, he called the VA’s current management of construction projects, “abysmal.”
Cost and schedule overruns on federal construction projects are not isolated to the VA. Projects as disparate as the Department of Transportation’s “Big Dig” tunnel in Boston, the Department of Energy’s proposed uranium and plutonium facilities, and the General Services Administration’s federal courthouses construction projects have been plagued by overruns totaling billions of dollars and many years.
The VA has 50 medical facility construction projects under way, with each costing at least $10 million, St. James said. The reason for the uptick in construction is because the agency’s “existing infrastructure does not fully align with the current health care needs of the veteran population,” she said.
“The emerging requirements in healthcare today are so different from what returning veterans received in World War II, Vietnam and beyond,” said Glenn Haggstrom at the hearing, principal executive director of the Office of Acquisition, Logistics, and Construction at the VA.
VA medical centers from that era were not built with women’s healthcare and mental healthcare in mind, Haggstrom said.