By Matthew Hansen
The new veterans hospital planned for Omaha is in danger of being delayed -- possibly for years -- by other VA projects that are taking far longer and costing many millions of dollars more than projected.
And the planned Omaha VA hospital, slated to open in 2018, already is experiencing cost overruns of its own that could further complicate its completion, said U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb.
His least favorite overrun: a $3 million security fence recently added to the project by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' national construction office.
Terry said the fence is meant partly to keep nonveterans out in the event of a disaster. Terry staffers have dubbed it the "Zombie Fence'' and joked about how it would keep the hospital safe in the event of a zombie invasion.
The Omaha congressman isn't laughing.
"They are screwing up to the point where they are jeopardizing the project and other projects from starting on time," Terry said of the VA.
When built, the new medical center at 42nd Street and Woolworth Avenue is expected to cover more than 1 million square feet and rise as high as six stories in some spots.
Complete with a cancer center, a women's health clinic and a parking garage, the facility will replace the 60-year-old hospital on that site. The VA Medical Center serves 161,000 veterans who mostly reside in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas.
The new construction won't come cheap: The price tag is estimated at $560 million, believed to be one of Omaha's largest public works projects.
Terry said he's hearing "rumors" about a potential delay to the project.
In late May, he requested an Inspector General's study of the VA construction office that is meant to shed light on the reasons for cost overruns and subsequent delays of VA projects around the country.
The study matters, he said, because delays in current projects will likely delay future ones such as Omaha's.
Mark Ballesteros, deputy media relations director for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said in an email that cost overruns do happen, sometimes prompted by increased post-Sept. 11 security standards.
"This may or may not cause a delay, depending how close to completion the project is and whether it is a phased project," Ballesteros said.
There is ample evidence that VA hospital projects tend to stall and cost more than originally planned.
A VA hospital under construction in the Orlando, Fla., area has ballooned to nearly $800 million -- more than $120 million over the original budget -- an overrun that will delay the facility's opening by more than a year.
The chairman of the largest contractor building the Orlando hospital testified before a congressional committee in March that the VA construction office was tardy delivering blueprints and repeatedly changed the hospital's floor plan.
Government officials also frequently left design questions unanswered for weeks, he said, bringing work to a halt.
The testimony infuriated Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., who had long fought for the hospital.
Similar overruns and delays are happening with VA hospital projects in New Orleans and Las Vegas.
Currently, four projects are under construction, Terry said, and all are delayed to some extent, meaning the hospitals behind them could start much later than planned.
The Omaha hospital is roughly 16th on the VA projects list, he said.
"It worries me that our hospital may be bumped back even further," Terry said.
"Common sense tells me they aren't going to start building eight (hospitals) at one time."
John Andrews, vice president of the Leo A. Daly Co. of Omaha, the architectural, planning and engineering firm building the hospital, said the firm was still operating under the belief that the project is on budget.
Andrews confirmed that a perimeter security fence is now part of the project and said the firm requested a waiver, essentially asking to build a smaller, less costly fence.
"If you drive by the site and see how steep the hill is ... some people have debated whether it's necessary to have that level of security perimeter," Andrews said. "You can't drive a car up those hills."
The waiver was denied, he said.
Now the design development that the firm submitted to the VA is under what's called an "extended review," which could delay the overall hospital design by at least several months, Andrews said.
Any headaches during the design and construction phases shouldn't obscure the reasoning behind the new hospital, Andrews said.
Nationally, nearly 8 million veterans of the Vietnam War are nearing retirement.
In the past decade, nearly 2.5 million service members have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association.
More than 700,000 of the Iraq and Afghan vets have received VA medical or mental health care since returning home.
"Everything we're trying to do here is for the greater good of veterans," Andrews said. "It's an important project. There is no question it's a necessary one. It's just a question of when."