Shinseki: Long-awaited VA hospital will open at Fitzsimons in 2013

(Illustration/fitzscience.com)

(Illustration/fitzscience.com)

After a decade of delays and budget shortfalls, Colorado will finally get the brand-new, stand-alone VA hospital veterans organizations have wanted, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki announced Wednesday morning. Construction will begin this spring on a 200-bed medical center set to open in the summer of 2013 on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Shinseki said.

The new facility will have a 30-bed, state-of-the art spinal injury center, Shinseki said, meaning nearly 1,000 veterans with spinal-cord injuries in the Rocky Mountain region won’t have to travel to the West Coast for treatment.

“Now we can fulfill the promises that we made to our veterans,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Golden Democrat whose district includes the site of the proposed hospital, on a conference call with Shinseki and other members of Colorado’s congressional delegation.

The new hospital on the site of the former Fitzsimons Army Medical Center will replace the nearly 60-year-old, 125-bed VA hospital in east Denver, a cramped facility dubbed one of the most outdated VA hospitals in the country in a 2004 report. The hospital is at the center of a nine-state VA health care system that serves an estimated 400,000 veterans in Colorado alone.

“Approximately 92 percent of Colorado veterans will be within one hour of VA primary care and 81 percent will be within two hours of a medical center or health care center,” Shinseki said. He announced the VA also plans new health care centers in Colorado Springs and Billings, Mont., and eight new rural health care sites in the region, bringing the total to 60.

“We have more wounded soldiers coming home to Colorado,” said U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey. The Fort Collins Democrat said the new facility will help fulfill “our moral obligation” to veterans.

Original plans for a stand-alone VA hospital at Fitzsimons budgeted construction at $1.1 billion, but Congress authorized only $568 million and appropriated $188 million over the years. Perlmutter and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, an Eldorado Springs Democrat, said earlier this week the size of the project could be scaled back from initial plans. The number of beds at the hospital announced by Shinseki on Wednesday is smaller than recent proposals for a 240-bed facility. Veterans officials have requested a new hospital with 76 inpatient beds, 32 intensive-care beds and 56 mental-health treatment beds, in addition to the 30-bed spinal cord injury center.

The VA has already acquired 40 acres for the facility and built an administrative office building on the site. The VA hospital will be near the University of Colorado’s Anschutz hospitals and cancer treatment center and a new $500 million Children’s Hospital facility.

Shinseki wouldn’t say Wednesday how much the Obama administration plans to spend on the new facility, adding that the VA had “some finishing work” to do on the plans. He estimated the VA was looking at “the 60 to 90 day mark to start scraping ground.”

The recently passed federal stimulus package includes $11 million to build an interchange at Interstate 225 and East Colfax Avenue at the southeast corner of the Fitzsimons site.

Colorado’s congressional delegation has fought for years plans by previous VA officials to include a new hospital inside an existing University of Colorado Health Sciences Center building at the Fitzsimons site.

“We’ve been united in seeking a stand-alone hospital facility,” Perlmutter said, praising his Republican predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, along with former U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard and former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, both Republicans, for their advocacy for the hospital over the years. Perlmutter also credited “the Salazar brothers” — Rep. John Salazar, a Manassa Democrat, and current Interior Secretary and former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar — who “have been champions of this from the beginning.”

“This will be a great legacy for Fitzsimons,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, an Aurora Republican and veteran of both the Army and Marines. Coffman noted that his father was a career soldier who served at Fitzsimons when it was one of the country’s regional medical centers. The base shut down in 1999 as part of a national base realignment plan.

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Ernest Luning

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