Members of Congress criticized the Veterans Affairs Department Wednesday for firing a whistleblower who warned of cost overruns at the Denver VA hospital but taking no action against higher-ranking executives.
At the hearing in Washington, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee also expressed skepticism about its proposal to complete the Denver hospital by diverting $830 million that Congress had allocated to improve veterans care nationwide.
The hospital under construction in suburban Aurora is now expected to cost $1.73 billion and be complete in 2017. Last year, the VA said it would cost $630 million and be done in 2015.
Committee chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, cited a Denver Post report that VA contract specialist Adelino Gorospe warned department executives in 2011 that the hospital would cost more than official estimates. Gorospe told the newspaper he was fired in 2012 for disobeying a supervisor.
Miller and others on the committee contrasted that with the departure of Glenn Haggstrom, the VA's top construction executive, who retired last month with full benefits amid an internal investigation into the Denver project.
"The VA seems to be punishing the whistleblowers, intimidating (them), and then highlighting and giving bonuses to the guys who are screwing up," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas. "Now where is the accountability in that?"
Haggstrom didn't immediately respond to a telephone message seeking further comment Wednesday.
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said the investigation of the Denver hospital would be expanded to include Gorospe's firing. He said Haggstrom retired one day after investigators interviewed him under oath, and that he was legally entitled to do so.
The department wants to complete the Denver hospital with money from a $5 billion fund Congress set up for the VA to hire more physicians, upgrade facilities, improve efficiency and make other changes to give veterans better access to health care.
Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-New Hampshire, said that would deprive veterans in other parts of the country.
"We want to serve our Western colleagues and constituents and veterans, but the trouble that I have is taking this funding out of other construction projects," she said. "We have needs as well."
Gibson told the panel the enormous cost overruns occurred because the plans weren't finalized before construction began and the design had some extravagant features including an outsized atrium. Gibson also cited construction cost increases in Denver and premiums paid to contractors to compensate for risks associated with the project.
In a testy exchange with Gibson, Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-New York, suggested criminal wrongdoing may have occurred and said law-enforcement investigators should get involved.
Gibson said he had seen no evidence of crimes.
Day-to-day supervision of the Denver hospital is being turned over to the Army Corps of Engineers. Lloyd C. Caldwell, director of military programs for the corps, told the committee the $1.73 billion estimate might be revised downward after an indecent assessment currently underway.