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Senator: Design Changes Might Be Behind VA Hospital Costs

In this April 22, 2014 file photo, a man works on a concrete form during construction of a new Veterans Administration hospital in the Denver suburb of Aurora, Colo. RJ SANGOSTI, DENVER POST/AP
In this April 22, 2014 file photo, a man works on a concrete form during construction of a new Veterans Administration hospital in the Denver suburb of Aurora, Colo. RJ SANGOSTI, DENVER POST/AP

AURORA, Colo. — Multiple design changes may be the reason a veterans hospital under construction near Denver soared more than $1 billion over budget, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee told reporters after touring the half-finished complex Friday.

"When you have a lot of changes, you have a lot of costs," Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia said.

He said the hospital must be finished, but the Veterans Affairs Department needs to ensure it comes in within the new budget, now estimated at $1.73 billion. Equipping the hospital and training the staff are expected to cost an additional $340 million, bringing the total to more than $2 billion.

Last year, the VA said the hospital would cost $630 million. An internal investigation is underway.

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the committee's ranking Democrat, said the Justice Department or another outside agency should investigate.

"People responsible for the fiscal catastrophe here should be held accountable," Blumenthal said.

Isakson and Blumenthal planned to hold a hearing on the hospital later Friday in Aurora. Also attending will be Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, whose district includes the hospital. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican on the committee, also was attending.

Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson is among those scheduled to testify at the hearing. He was grilled by Coffman and other members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee at a hearing in Washington last week.

The VA has asked Congress for another $830 million to finish the complex. It wants to take the money from a $5 billion fund Congress approved to improve veterans' access to care by building more facilities, hiring more medical professionals and improving efficiency.

Some lawmakers are refusing to go along with that plan, and some have asked whether the project should be scaled back.

Congress has been pressuring the VA to explain what went wrong and fire those responsible. Gibson has said one of the problems was a badly flawed planning process.

The VA launched an internal investigation this year, but it came under criticism because it began without an outside construction expert. An expert joined the panel this week but some witnesses had already been interviewed.

The VA has said its former head of construction retired one day after the internal investigators questioned him under oath, and three other officials have been transferred or demoted, but no one has been fired.

A whistleblower has said he was fired from his VA job after telling department executives the hospital couldn't be built for the contract price.

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