U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner announced on Friday that he will support a new veterans’ hospital in Colorado Springs to help serve the estimated 83,000 veterans living in El Paso County.
“Based on conversations with the VA and staff here and through the region, it is critically important that we build a new VA hospital in Colorado Springs,” said Gardner outside the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora. “The veterans’ population in Colorado and Colorado Springs certainly merits this initiative. So I will be writing a letter and introducing legislation that pursues a new VA hospital.”
Gardner visited the Aurora facility with U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, who praised the hospital for handling the growth in Colorado’s veteran population.
“If this place was not in the condition that it is now, and we did not have the dedicated workers, then we would not have been able to provide Colorado veterans and Colorado citizens with the services that they needed during these very crucial times,” Wilkie said.
The secretary did not comment on Gardner’s proposal for a Colorado Springs hospital, but claimed a 70% growth in the state's veteran population since 2010 and indicated that Colorado needs more resources. (In reality, Colorado's veteran population has decreased from more than 400,000 in 2010 to approximately 375,000 in 2018.)
“We are straining in order to meet explosive growth,” he said, adding that an Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission will soon review VA facilities and identify where the department can make additional investments or reallocate dollars. A handful of senators from rural states are opposed to the commission for fear it could identify hospitals in their states for closure.
According to Census Bureau data, 16% of the population in El Paso County identifies as veterans, which is twice the proportion for Colorado as a whole. The department listed Colorado as having the 17th-largest population of veterans as of 2017. A clinic does already exist in Colorado Springs that provides primary, mental health, surgical and some therapeutic services.
“When you look at veterans as a per capita segment of our population, no other city has the concentration that we do," said Mayor John Suthers. "It makes a whole lot of sense, using the very same reasoning that resulted in the recent establishment of a VA cemetery here in our city.”
Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, said he was unaware of Gardner's plan, but also agreed "it makes sense to have a healthcare facility. I'd be happy to talk with Sen. Gardner to provide any sort of assistance and support that he would need to set up a hospital here."
Wilkie mentioned that in western states, it is a challenge to overcome larger distances when providing services to veterans. However, the Aurora hospital saw a 1,700% increase in telehealth visits during the pandemic, according to the secretary. The VA has also dispatched personal protective equipment and personnel from the Aurora facility to elsewhere in the country, indicative of what Wilkie deemed “the greatest renaissance in [VA] history.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs, with a proposed $243 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year, has long received criticism for its delivery of services to veterans. Internal audits found waits in excess of 90 days to see doctors, and an investigation from The Gazette described battles some veterans have had with the department to have their conditions recognized.
"They will do everything they can not to have to pay for your care. Throw all this paperwork at you, doubt you and question your service … after you put your life on the line,” Vietnam veteran Karl Lippard told the paper.
The 31-acre Aurora campus that Wilkie and Gardner visited experienced a five-year delay and arrived $1 billion over budget before opening in 2018. Staff at the Colorado Springs clinic also incorrectly reported that many veterans received care sooner than in reality.
Wilkie deflected when asked how the VA would ensure that similar problems would not plague a potential Colorado Springs hospital.
"I wasn't the VA secretary in the last administration when this was going on," he said. "We will apply all scrutiny when it comes to any new construction. But the bottom line is getting services to veterans where they need it."
Editor's note: While Wilkie said that there has been an increase in Colorado's veteran population in the last decade, this story has been updated to show there has been a decline.