CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A 2019 report revealed some construction projects at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center were delayed almost two years and resulted in increased costs of at least $441,000.
The Dept. of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General reviewed four allegations of potential mismanagement of construction projects after a complaint to the office’s hotline in Oct. 2017.
Two of those allegations were proven and addressed. The first alleged some nonrecurring, maintenance projects took years to begin after contracts were awarded and resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in increased costs because of those delays.
The second substantiated allegation centered around potentially wasted funds from the VA medical center’s attempt to split design drawings for two projects. The plan would have cost $74,000, but the matter was resolved before any money was spent.
The projects in question included renovation, repair, maintenance, and modernization of existing infrastructure within the existing facility, and the report found this was a part of the problem.
Because the medical center serves more than 67,000 veterans in 21 counties, the construction would require patients and clinics to be moved while the work happened. However, limited space to relocate services lead to delays.
“The start of construction for each project was planned around the expected availability of that relocation space, regardless of when the funds were obligated,” the review found.
However, the investigation also revealed that federal regulations and even the Veterans Health Administration’s own guidebooks did not outline a standard time frame for when construction is required to start after construction contracts were awarded. During the review, VHA officials did suggest 150 days should be the “maximum reasonable period” for construction to begin, but it’s not a formal policy and staff at the Charleston VAMC were not notified.
The Office of Inspector General concluded the Ralph H. Johnson Medical Center needed to ensure there was a process to notify the Veterans Integrated Service Network’s capital asset manager, prior to contracts being awarded, if construction was not planned to start within 150 days, “so prudent decisions can be made regarding project funds in a timely manner.”
It’s important to note, the OIG’s report did not identify any instances of fraud during the review, and the medical center’s director, at the time, explained the delays were an effort to provide quality and access to care for veterans.
“Between FY13-FY17 our facility experienced unprecedented growth of 27%, increasing from 59,252 uniques to 75,619. The estimated cost of cancelling multiple clinics and shifting care to the community in order to begin these projects on the planned construction date would have far exceeded the cost incurred by construction delays,” said Scott Isaacks in a response to the OIG’s review. “Placing our Veterans’ quality of care at risk due to the community’s inability to absorb the workload, likely causing delays in care, was not an option and would have left our staff and providers underutilized. While we contend the facility procedures at the time of this review for making clinical care and space decisions were in alignment with VA standards, we agree the processes in place in 2014 could be improved upon and have been improved upon.”
In a statement to Live 5 News, officials with Ralph H. Johnson responded to the report’s findings.
“The report you reference, which found that two of the four allegations looked into were unsubstantiated, highlights events that date back to six years ago and had no negative impact on patient care. For the two that were substantiated, it was found Charleston VAMC’s actions were in accordance with VA policy, were less costly and were in the best interest of patients ensuring continuity of the high-quality care they deserve. The IG also found the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, which consistently ranks in the top 10 percent for quality of care, addressed all recommendations and acknowledged the facility’s actions to maintain quality and access to timely care were necessary to maintaining the health of our Veteran patients.”