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Report critical of length, dollar figure it took to build VA Hospital

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Report critical of length, dollar figure it took to build VA Hospital

By Loni Blandford. CREATED Nov 4, 2013

North Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- Over budget and behind schedule. The new veterans hospital in North Las Vegas may be mostly open, but a government report is critical of how long it's taken and how much it will cost.

Chief Investigator Darcy Spears got a first hand look at how your tax dollars are being spent and there were some things that gave her sticker shock. Is it all money well spent? You decide, because you paid for it.

"It's a nice facility," said Dr. Papa Huluwaz, a veteran.

It's filled with high-tech equipment that will help provide care that veterans say is long overdue. 

"I think it's worth it, but it's a lot of money," said James Johnson.

The price tag is an estimated $585 million according to a Government Accountability Office report obtained by Contact 13. That's far from the initial figure of $325 million for a facility that's still under construction. 

"It ended up being about an 80% increase," said Congresswoman Dina Titus. That's something that doesn't sit well with Titus.

"You always worry when something cost more than what it was intended," said Congresswoman Titus.

"When you look at 325 versus 585, a few hundred million dollar difference there, where did that go," asked Darcy.

"I think that's part of the process of the whole construction process," explained John Stelsel, Acting Associate Director for the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System.

The June 2014 complete date is five years later than the original estimates so why the delay?

"We have almost the second highest homeless veteran population in the nation," said Stelsel.

He says our homeless vet population is one reason plans changed taking the place from a clinic to a full-fledged hospital with 210 beds and a mental health facility. Added services he says are partly to blame for target completion dates getting pushed back.

"Do you think that's something that could have been figured out earlier, or what there this influx, this explosion of people in need that couldn't have been previously figured out," asked Darcy.

"I think there's probably both of that," said Stelsel.

Part of the problem with construction delays is advances in technology since the design was conceived. For example, a computer can now scan arms and legs for computer aided design for prosthetic limbs. The $300,000 technology simply didn't exist when the building was designed.

Stelsel says they met the deadlines set forth by the VA's Central Office in Washington but every tweak to construction plans meant a change order.

"According to the GAO report they didn't have a time limit," asked Darcy.

"Yeah," said Stelsel.

Until the VA gave the go ahead the specified change got put on hold.

"They had no procedure, no time-line. It was kind of a capricious way of looking at change orders," said Congresswoman Titus. 

The North Las Vegas Hospital was the VA's first major construction project in 18 years. 

"Did they get in over their heads? Should they even be managing construction projects," asked Darcy.

"Well I don't support privatizing that, but I do support reforming the VA and I think having the GAO report is the first step to doing that," said Congresswoman Titus.

The report says a change order typically takes an average of two to three months just to get approved. Something vets we talked to mirrors another problem within the VA.

"This mishandling of claims is a greater issue," said Huluwaz.

Veterans waiting months, even years to get claims approved. An ongoing problem we've reported many times that's finally being tackled thanks to a transition from paper to electronic records and a system to process the oldest claims first. Back at the hospital, the VA is spending your tax dollars on more than just services.

They say decorative features like a bubble wall help promote a healing environment. But the price may not be so calming to some. With seven of them throughout the building, the total price tag is more than $115,000 tax dollars. 

Some of the stuff built there will probably never be used, like a guard shack. After it was constructed they realized they didn't want to delay people who are coming to seek medical care. So it sits empty and unmanned, only to be used officials say in case of a security emergency.

The VA tells Contact 13 they don't have records of how much you paid to build the unmanned guard house. They referred us to another agency who hasn't yet responded. As for that GAO report, it isn't just critical of our veteran's hospital but also VA projects in Denver, Orlando, and New Orleans. 

"They've set up an activation office out of DC to look at these things," said Stelsel. 

The office will help look at what could have been done better from start to finish. For Southern Nevada, finish means completing the administration building and education center by next June. 

"How confident are you that you're going to be able to do that ribbon cutting in that month," asked Darcy.

"Well I'm not going to wait until July 13th to ask them if they're going to finish. I'm going to be watching them every step of the way to be sure we're making progress towards that goal," said Congresswoman Titus.

When talking dollars and cents veterans says they're happy the hospital is there.

We'll continue to track the finishing touches and we'll be there for that ribbon cutting.