As the rift between Veterans Affairs and the primary contractor on the much-delayed Orlando VA Medical Center has grown from a crack to a canyon, new developments threaten to stall the project further — or speed it up.
The contractor, Brasfield & Gorrie, responded Monday to a Contract Cure Notice the VA sent 10 days earlier. The notice cited "the contractor's inability to diligently pursue the work and to provide suitable manpower to make satisfactory progress." The VA asked B&G to get more workers on the job and figure out a way to get the job done faster, or the VA would pull the contract.
Meanwhile, the revelation that the top VA official overseeing the $656 million hospital project lacks the qualifications for the job has spurred a new round of criticism.
The VA's cure notice "has the potential to stop construction at the Orlando site and increase the costs moving forward exponentially if a resolution is not reached," said U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Pensacola, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Miller accused the VA of painting "a rosy picture for the public and the veterans" for the past two years.
"This project has been a multimillion-dollar debacle, and a failure of this magnitude deserves accountability at the highest level," Miller said. "VA management and oversight of large construction projects across the country have been sorely lacking and fraught with incompetence."
Originally set to open in October 2012, the VA hospital is delayed nine months if you ask the VA, and three times that long if you ask B&G. VA officials say the 1.2 million-square-foot hospital and clinic can open in summer 2013, while B&G doesn't see that happening before January 2015.
Issuing a cure notice is a legal move that "sounds as if the VA is leading up to a termination notice," said Robert McCue of MDC Systems. The Philadelphia-based company troubleshoots large construction projects but is not involved with the Orlando VA hospital project.
Although he doesn't think the standoff will come to that, the notice will force the contractor to react, McCue said.
"Changing contractors at this point would be extremely disruptive," he said.
"We are taking this very seriously," said Tracey Sibley, spokeswoman for B&G. In its response filed Monday, the contractor addressed the VA's two areas of concern: schedule and manpower.
Though she said B&G did not want to make its response public until the VA has had a chance to review it and respond, she said, "We think a solution is doable."
Bart Bruchok, senior resident engineer for the VA project, acknowledged receiving B&G's response.
"We had specific concerns, and they responded to each of those concerns," Bruchok said. "Now we have to verify that those commitments can be met."
The biggest outstanding issue remains the completion date, he said. Once the VA has reviewed the 12-page response, the parties will have a meeting, which Bruchok estimates will take place within a week.
Meanwhile, since receiving the cure notice, B&G has increased the number of workers on site from fewer than 400 to closer to 600, Sibley said, though the rain has dampened some of that effort. When fully engaged, the project should have close to 1,200 workers.
"The problem now isn't a matter of labor, but of time and money," McCue said. "In situations like this, the contractor looks at all the changes and says that to implement all of them will take many extra months and many extra dollars. So arguments ensue over how much overhead that extra time will cost. That's what holds up the project.
"The arguments that break out consume hundreds of hours of management time and become political," McCue said.
And they have.
U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, said incompetence on the project starts at the top with the VA's Office of Construction and Facilities Management, based in Washington.
As he investigated the delay, he said, "I got to thinking someone familiar with construction would have a better knowledge of how this all works and wouldn't have let this happen. So I looked into who was in charge and his qualifications," Webster said.
He was not impressed with what he found.
Robert Neary has served as acting director of the national VA construction office since 2005. The following year — after approving $3 billion in VA medical-facility-construction spending — Congress passed a law requiring that the person directing the office meet two criteria: He or she must have a bachelor's or master's degree in architecture or engineering, and significant construction-management experience.
Neary has neither. His bachelor's degree is in political science, and his construction experience has largely taken place in a government office.
"I don't know why he got the job," said Webster, who is calling for Neary to be replaced. Last month, Webster wrote to Gen. Eric Shinseki, VA secretary, asking him to take another look at those in leadership positions on this project and replace them with more-qualified candidates.
"What I'm asking for is pretty simple," Webster said. "I want him to follow the law that the U.S. Congress put in place and replace this guy with someone who has the credentials."
Though still waiting for Shinseki's reply, Webster said, "I think he'll take it to heart."
Neary did not return calls for comment but issued this statement in an email: "I have no direct comment on Mr. Webster's position. My focus needs to be on moving this project forward with this contractor or another and cannot be distracted from that task. With over 40 years in the business, I have overseen many, many successful projects and a few that brought difficult challenges such as Orlando."
McCue said he would hesitate to assign blame to one person. "Problems like these are complex and not likely as simple as putting the wrong person in charge. When working within a large, bureaucratic organization, people get trapped in the framework. These problems are systemwide."
He added, however, that if he were hiring someone for this size project, he would look for candidates with a degree in the field and 20 years' experience doing similar work.
Because the VA is an older, rigid system and government-driven, "it's much more cumbersome," McCue said. Thus, contractors don't get quick responses. "When you're building a shopping center, you can work such problems out over breakfast. But on a government project this size, no one has the authority to make decisions unilaterally."
Construction problems are plaguing VA medical-center projects in other states. Of the four VA hospitals under construction, three are more than a year behind schedule, Miller said.
"If you look at VA hospital projects across the country, it doesn't appear that this hospital is alone," McCue said. "Others have symptoms of the same disease."
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