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.
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.
VA, contractor try to sort out Orlando hospital delay
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