Veterans Affairs official defends $5 million renovation project

PERRY POINT, Md. - About a year has passed since crews started initial construction at the Veterans Affairs' Perry Point campus in Maryland. Officials don't expect to lift the caution tape on the projects until at least next spring.

"There's obviously some repair work that needs to be done on the woodwork, and they are going to attempt to make sure that that is historically correct," said Jeff Nechanicky, Operation Officer with the VA Maryland Health Care System.

The VA is taking on two separate projects on two buildings on the Perry Point campus-- both projects strive for the same goal.

"Mostly, it'll be for the benefit of those in the community and our veterans here on campus." Nechanicky said.

The VA is spending about $5 million to bring the two oldest buildings on the Perry Point campus back to life.

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"It's all relative, of course," said Nechanicky. "They are historic buildings and by law, the VA is required to keep them up to par, if you will. So, they are important in terms of historic aspects, but perhaps in the larger perspective, it might not be so important. But I think it is important to keep them up to par."

SNechanicky said about seven years ago, the agency decided to look into a project to upgrade both the mansion and grist mill on site. He said the two buildings sat empty for about six years, but once the projects are completed, they will both serve as training facilities and meeting areas for veterans. The old grist mill will also be home to the Veterans Museum. The projects were funded for fiscal year 2013 for execution.

"That cycle time was well in place before what is happening came to light," Nechanicky said.

In a more than 80 page report on problems within the VA, Sen. Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, called out the Perry Point campus stating, in part, "While it is laudable the VA is committed to historic preservation, ensuring higher quality care for veterans does not involve spending money on decorative water wheels."

Nechanicky defended the project stating, "I think out of context that is probably a very viable statement.

"However, when we look at the larger government, I do have, me -- an employee of the federal government -- have to take care of the other legal responsibilities that I have as well," he continued. "One of which is maintaining historic properties and structures, and this is one of those."

Local veterans new to the system are waiting on average 78 days for a primary care appointment. While they wait, the VA said they're implementing an "aggressive action plan" -- hiring more doctors and support staff, bringing back Saturday appointments at the Baltimore VA, and contacting patients on the wait list.

But in Coburn's report, Perry Point is the first example under the headline 'Renovation and Office Equipment Excesses.'

"I can't argue with the logic that he gives us, but in my case, I do not have the ability to make those decisions at this level," Nechanicky said.

Nechanicky said the funds have already been set aside for these specific projects.

"We do get resources for operations and those can be used for this purpose," he said. "But I can't take these funds, for instance, and stop this project now and move them over to buy healthcare for our veterans. I can't do that. I don't have the legal authority to do that or make that decision."

In Focus Investigators asked Nechanicky his response to veterans who are waiting a long time for appointments and then see $5 million spend on historic preservation. He says if veterans need care they can be seen that same day. He tells investigators 'care' is defined by the veteran.

"If I had $5 million today to hire doctors today, I probably couldn't get them. Mainly because there is competition in the community. Not just Perry Point and this area-- we are a little rural here-- but the Baltimore area, every major hospital in

the community is trying to hire physicians and clinicians," Nechanicky said.

Coburn's report states, in part, "As part of its renovations, the VA plans to install a new water wheel on the exterior of the building, which will 'mimic, as closely as possible, the original.'"

But Nechanicky said the water wheel will not be brought back to life. He said it is not in working condition, and that is one way they are cutting back on costs. He does say, in both projects, the buildings will closely mimic what they looked like in their original state.

He reassures that the VA is always working to have high quality care for our veterans.