WASHINGTON — The House on Tuesday approved a bill to increase oversight and management of large construction projects at the Department of Veterans Affairs after a new VA hospital outside Denver tripled original cost estimates.
The bill requires the VA to allow the Army Corps of Engineers or other federal agencies to manage projects that cost more than $100 million. The VA also would be required to keep Congress closely informed about large projects. Money could not be spent on advance planning or design until 60 days after Congress is notified.
The House approved the bill on a voice vote. It now goes to the Senate.
The measure responds to a multiyear debacle in Aurora, Colorado, where a hospital under construction is now projected to cost $1.7 billion. Investigators blame overruns on multiple design changes and a decision by VA officials to use a complicated contract process they didn't fully understand.
Republican lawmakers call the Aurora project a symptom of the VA's overall dysfunction. Congress reluctantly approved up to $625 million in additional spending for the project last fall, the money to come from other accounts within the VA.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the bill approved Tuesday would "help rein in the incompetence that permeates VA's construction efforts" while enhancing accountability and efficiency.
Construction of the Colorado hospital is expected to be completed in 2018 — four years after the initial target date.
The House bill also would authorize expansion of a VA hospital in Tampa, Florida, and provide $561.4 million for five other projects: renovation of a hospital in Canandaigua, New York; and four major medical projects in California: Long Beach, San Francisco, West Los Angeles and San Diego.
The House also approved separate bills aimed at helping prevent suicide among female veterans and identifying and improving the VA's worst-performing hospitals.
Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., said the suicide rate among female veterans is nearly six times higher than women who do not serve in the military. Among those ages 18 to 29, the risk of suicide is nearly 12 times the rate of non-veteran women, Brownley said, calling that figure "shocking."
Brownley's bill expands on a law approved last year requiring the VA to conduct annual evaluations of its suicide prevention and mental health programs. The Clay Hunt law, approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama, does not require VA to specify how well its programs are working for female veterans. Brownley's bill would direct the VA to study which programs work best for male and female veterans.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., would require the VA to publish performance metrics that identify whether hospitals are meeting key health care standards. The VA would be required to send a team of top officials to underperforming medical centers to help ensure they achieve satisfactory performance as quickly as possible, Roby said.
Both bills now go to the Senate.