The VA’s Strained Relationship With The Truth
By Jeff Miller
The Denver Post
July 9, 2016
The Department of Veterans Affairs has had a lot to say in recent years regarding its failed attempts at building VA hospitals. But the key question is whether VA officials’ construction-related pronouncements are to be believed.
When it comes to the VA’s long and troubled history with major construction projects, American veterans and taxpayers deserve the truth, which it seems VA leaders are not providing.
During a recent visit to the site of the VA hospital in Aurora — the biggest construction failure in VA history — Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson claimed he had planned to fire one VA employee for bungling the project, which is more than $1 billion over budget. According to Gibson, however, the employee in question retired before the firing commenced.
It’s quite odd that this seemingly crucial detail is only surfacing now — nearly a year and a half after the project imploded in December 2014. So the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has asked the VA to provide the proof backing up Gibson’s claim, which — given the department’s history of misleading statements regarding a range of construction issues — is entirely warranted.
After all, it wasn’t that long ago when VA Secretary Bob McDonald, speaking at an April event in Colorado, attempted to take credit for reforms to the VA’s construction process in the wake of the Aurora construction debacle. In reality, the changes were actually forced on VA by Congress after years of claims from department officials that the project was on track and on budget.
But these sorts of bizarre claims are par for the course at the VA, such as when, in the aftermath of the Aurora project’s implosion, Gibson called VA’s construction management process “pretty good.” It was one of the most out-of-touch statements from any VA leader in recent memory, but it was one of many.
For instance, VA officials have often touted the “lessons learned” from construction of the department’s embattled facility in Orlando, Fla., as key to avoiding similar problems with other projects. “The lessons learned from Orlando and past major construction projects are guiding us in our management of the Denver and New Orleans replacement hospitals,” former VA Construction Chief Glenn Haggstrom said in May of 2013.
But, contrary to Haggstrom’s claim, the only thing VA appears to have learned from Orlando is how to generate hundreds of millions in cost overruns at VA hospitals in Aurora and New Orleans, a facility whose $1 billion-plus cost makes it the second-most expensive hospital in VA history.
The Orlando facility was originally slated to cost around $276 million, but the hospital’s price tag had grown to roughly $665 million when it opened in May of 2015. To make matters worse, the VA is still learning painful lessons in Orlando its leaders never told the public about.
Last year, just months after the hospital had opened, the VA quietly agreed to a series of settlement payments totaling nearly $213 million to the contractor it had hired to build the facility — the same contractor it had previously blamed for many of the project’s problems. Instead of telling Congress and the public about the payments, however, the VA tried to keep them a secret. And if not for a New York Daily News investigation, they would have stayed that way. The payments brought the Orlando facility’s price tag, which VA officials had led the public to believe was around $665 million, to a whopping $878 million.
And so it goes at the VA, where dishonesty among employees is routinely tolerated, and veterans and taxpayers are forced to deal with the consequences.
Whether it’s construction, patient wait-times, health care enrollment and eligibility or any number of other areas, the VA has a long history of misleading the public regarding its mismanagement of important programs. The only way to fix these problems once and for all is for department leaders to be honest about the challenges the VA faces and what is needed to overcome them.
But how can we expect that to happen when the VA’s leaders have such a strained relationship with the truth?
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Chumuckla, Fla., is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.