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Lavish features cut from over-budget Denver VA hospital

By: DAN ELLIOTT, Associated Press
June 29, 2016 Updated: June 29, 2016 at 5:59 pm
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AURORA — Imported Brazilian stone has been scratched from the budget-busting design for a veterans hospital under construction outside Denver, replaced by cheaper Colorado rock.

A planned $10 million landscaping scheme has been slashed to $2 million, and subcontractors who find a way to reduce costs get to keep 30 percent of the savings, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, which took over management of the project after the cost nearly tripled.

Corps officials said Wednesday they've been looking for ways to save money since taking over construction management from the Veterans Affairs Department last year.

But Col. John Henderson, commander of the Corps' Omaha, Nebraska, district — which includes Denver — said it's too soon to know whether the builders can finish for less than the nearly $1.7 billion contract cost because some other expenses are rising.

"It would be creating a false expectation," Henderson said while leading Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and others on a tour of the suburban Aurora site. Coffman's district includes the hospital.

The hospital complex has about a dozen buildings and parking garages strung out along a long, narrow parcel of land. Most of the buildings branch off from a 1,100-foot-long central concourse with glass and steel walls soaring as high as 70 feet.

"It seems like a pretty exotic design," Coffman said Wednesday.

"It's not typical of a military hospital," Henderson replied. But he was careful not to criticize the VA, saying the department was a key partner in the project.

"We inherited the design. Now we're looking for efficiencies," he said.

Henderson and Ted Streckfuss, the Corps' deputy district engineer, said those efficiencies include a faster, simplified process for approving minor changes in the plans.

In the seven months since the Corps took over, change orders have cost a total of $1.7 million, Streckfuss said. Before that, they were costing about $2 million each month, he said.

The huge drop was partly because changes are more likely to crop up in the early stages of construction, Streckfuss said. He declined to speculate on other reasons.

The hospital is about 70 percent complete, and construction is expected to be finished in early 2018. The VA hasn't set an opening date, citing the difficulties of starting up a new hospital.

It will replace an old, crowded facility still operating in Denver.

Coffman has been a vocal critic of the VA, both for mismanaging the project and for failing to fire anyone involved in the mistakes.

The VA has repeatedly taken responsibility for the massive cost overrun but said anyone who might have been fired had left the department, some by retirement.

The agency has refused to make public the results of an internal investigation into what went wrong.

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