Health Care, Peter Blake

Blake: A Tale of Two Hospitals

A Tale of Two Hospitals:

It was the best of times for Denver’s St. Joseph HospitaI. It started planning its new facility at 1375 E. 19th Ave. in 2010 and on June 3, 2011, The Denver Post said that the 348-bed, 826,000-square-foot structure “is expected to open in December 2014.”

Two weeks ago the Post and other media reported the new St. Joseph was indeed opening for business. It was on time and, at $623 million, slightly under budget. It is now 831,000 square feet, meaning Mortenson Construction must have been given some change orders, but handled them seamlessly.

It used prefabricated elements in construction, which saved $4.3 million, according to a study by a couple of civil engineers at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

The new St. Joe’s has 365 patient rooms — all of them private — and 42 more beds in the emergency room. It is slightly smaller than the adjacent old building. which had 565 beds, but that’s because more patients use ambulatory surgery centers for relatively minor procedures. When you’re in a hospital now, you’re seriously sick.

The hospital has a new joint operating agreement with National Jewish Health, which specializes in respiratory diseases. Its name is on the building but it doesn’t have an equity stake, according to a hospital spokesman.

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Meanwhile, it was the worst of times for the Veterans Administration, which has been trying to build a new hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora to replace its 60-year-old facility at East 9th Avenue and Clermont Street in Denver.

A replacement has been kicking around since at least 2001, when it was proposed that the VA occupy several floors of the new 12-story hospital CU was going to build at Anschutz. The estimated cost then was about $200 million.

But veterans didn’t want a shared facility. In 2003 a new plan was floated that would have authorized the building of a separate “federal tower” next to the CU hospital, with the VA and CU sharing only operating rooms, intensive care beds and radiology services.

But veterans, and the VA, continued to balk and in January 2005 the shared facilities plan was abandoned. CU had to start building its own hospital right away in order to pay off its $160 million in bonds.

Six months later the VA announced it would build a free-standing, 1.1 million-square-foot hospital and up to four other buildings at Anschutz at a cost of about $350 million.

But plans and costs expanded. In 2008 Congress approved a $568 million project. In 2009 VA chief Eric Shinseki came to Colorado for a groundbreaking — but nothing happened. Finally, in November 2011, a second groundbreaking ceremony was held for what was then to be an $800 million project to be completed in 2015. It was to have 182 beds, a spinal-cord injury center and a nursing home. Kiewit-Turner Construction was the contractor.

Plans kept changing and costs kept going up. In 2013 KT said costs would be over $1 billion and asked to be let off the project. The VA denied the request. It claimed it had already cut $300 million in costs and said it shouldn’t be blamed if bids by KT’s subcontractors came in unexpectedly high.

Two weeks ago KT walked away from the half-built project, noting that a federal appeals board concluded that the VA had failed to control its design team and had breached the contract. A few days later, after a desperate attempt to salvage the project, the VA agreed to let the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversee the project.

KT signed back on after the VA agreed to pay it $235 million to remain on the job for three months. Meanwhile attorneys will negotiate the terms for KT “to finish the project, perhaps by 2017.”


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The hospital fiasco is just one of the many problems that the VA has had in recent months. Headlines have told about long waits for care at VA facilities — and about the VA providing misleading or false information to Congress and the media about the wait times.

There is a limited voucher program available to some veterans living far from VA facilities. It lets them get care from private physicians at private facilities. It probably should be expanded.

To be sure the VA is supported by a large network of entrenched interests, especially the veterans themselves. They think it’s important that there be single-payer facilities just for them. The hospitals may be old, inefficient, overbooked and expensive to replace. But vets are used to them and like having facilities devoted exclusively to them, no matter how mediocre.

Congressmen also like VA facilities in their districts since they are far more visible symbols of their influence than a voucher program.

A voucher program should be expanded but left voluntary. Let the vets choose what they like.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes every other Thursday for Contact him at You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and


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