AURORA, Colo. — Plumbers, electricians and drywall installers are still at work on the budget-busting Denver veterans hospital, even as the Veterans Affairs Department tries to coax another $830 million from an angry Congress to finish the project, officials said Saturday.
About 650 construction workers and 180 managers are busy at the site in suburban Aurora on most weekdays, said Chris Bantner, managing partner for the project for contractor Kiewit-Turner. That's down from about 1,200 last year, before exploding costs brought work to a halt in December and Congress began demanding explanations.
Work resumed under an interim contract. The Army Corps of Engineers is taking over day-to-day construction oversight and negotiating a new deal with Kiewit-Turner to finish the facility.
The hospital has become a major embarrassment for the VA. Last year, the department said it would cost $630 million and be done in 2015. Now it's expected to cost $1.73 billion and be finished in 2017.
The VA blames a flawed design process and other problems. An internal investigation is underway.
It will take about six more months after construction is complete to equip the hospital and train the staff, said Brad McCollam, who is overseeing activation of the facility for the VA. Some of that work will start before construction is complete, he said.
The budget for equipping and activating the hospital is $340 million, McCollam said. Officials couldn't immediately say whether that was included in the $1.73 billion figure.
A handful of workers were at the 31-acre site Saturday when officials took reporters and photographers on a tour. Some of the buildings already had painted interior walls, but others were a honeycomb of metal framing and dangling wires. Huge sheets of white plastic cover some of the outside walls.
"We continue to make progress," said Kevin Lindsey, the VA's project executive for the hospital. "You can't see this from outside the curtain."
The hospital complex will have as many as 12 buildings and three parking garages strung out along a long, narrow parcel of land. Most of them branch off from a gently curving, 1,100-foot-long central concourse with glass and steel walls that soar as high as 70 feet.
At a hearing in Washington on Wednesday, some members of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee derided the concourse as an extravagant atrium. But Lindsey said two main entrances to the concourse will limit the distance veterans have to walk to any part of the hospital, and the concourse carries essential utilities to each building.
Lindsey said some expensive features of the hospital are mandated by federal law, such as a 1.5-million-gallon water tank, a wastewater holding tank and several backup generators that would allow the hospital to keep running for several days if a disaster severed utility service.
To finish the hospital, the VA wants to pull money from a $5 billion fund that Congress set up to improve access to health care after disclosures that some veterans endured long waits for appointments. Some members of the House and Senate oppose that idea.
Rep. Mike Coffman and Sen. Cory Gardner, both Colorado Republicans, have introduced legislation that would funnel the VA's multimillion-dollar bonus budget to the Denver hospital until construction is complete.
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has scheduled a field hearing on the hospital in Aurora on Friday.
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