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McConnell announces money for VA facility

LOUISVILLE — U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, on the home stretch of his re-election campaign, announced at a hastily-called news conference that the Department for Veterans Affairs approved his request for $75 million to be spent on the planning of a new VA hospital in Louisville.

McConnell said he received a letter Friday night from VA Secretary James Peake, in which Peake agreed to spend that full amount, which McConnell allotted in the 2009 budget resolution signed by President Bush in September.

"I am pleased to inform you that VA will allocate $75 million of fiscal 2009 major construction funds for the planning and design necessary to build a new veterans' health care facility in Louisville," Peake's letter, dated Oct. 31, says.

McConnell is in a tough re-election fight with Democrat Bruce Lunsford, in which McConnell has touted his ability to secure funding and resources for Kentucky because of his seniority and status as Republican leader. Veterans' health care also has been an issue in the race as McConnell's campaign has attacked Lunsford in commercials for having business ties to a company that runs VA clinics in Texas and Arkansas. The ads showed veterans and their family members complaining about the level of care by Valor Healthcare, the firm for which Lunsford serves on the board of directors.

But McConnell said Saturday's announcement was separate from politics.

"The business of government doesn't stop when a campaign's going on," he said, noting the timing of the announcement was pegged to Peake's letter from Friday. "This is a breaking development of enormous proportions."

The prospect for a new VA hospital has also been a campaign issue in Louisville's congressional race, where first-term Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth has said he successfully pushed for funding for a new VA facility in the House version of the federal budget bill. His Republican opponent, former congresswoman Anne Northup, has pressed Yarmuth on that, saying Yarmuth was exaggerating because it hadn't come to fruition yet.

It will now, said McConnell, who made the announcement on the sidewalk outside the Gene Snyder federal court building.

"The veterans of the commonwealth have served our nation nobly and will soon have access to a state of the art facility that they certainly and richly deserve," he said.

While Yarmuth, the Democratic congressman, wasn't present at the announcement, Dr. Larry Cook — executive vice president of health affairs at the University of Louisville — acknowledged that Yarmuth and Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson had been instrumental in the project, as well.

Cook said the $75 million will go toward site selection and groundbreaking of a new facility. The total cost could be as much as $400 million depending on how many beds it will have, he said.

McConnell said even though President Bush signed the federal spending bill in September, the VA could have chosen to spend part or all of the $75 million differently.

"There is some real discretion about it," he said. "I sent in the higher figure and then used whatever influence I had with the current secretary of Veterans Affairs to get him, as he indicated in his letter that you have, to use that discretion to provide the full $75 million."