House OKs expanded VA clinics in Acadiana; Senate approval expected soon

Senate approval expected soon

The House approved on Tuesday the much-delayed, expanded veterans health care clinics in Lafayette, Lake Charles and 25 other locations in the nation.

The critical step sets the table for the Senate to approve the legislation by “unanimous consent” as soon as Wednesday when Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La., make the request in order to avoid waiting until next year, members of the Louisiana congressional delegation said.

Landrieu said late Tuesday she doubts there will be any opposition.

The House easily approved the legislation with just one opposing vote — Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. — to move beyond the delays that have kept the clinics mired in a congressional impasse over rules technicalities.

The clinics generally are where veterans go for medical care. Plans for expanded clinics, with specialty care services in Lafayette and a new Lake Charles clinic, were delayed last year because of a paperwork error. The most recent hurdle was a change in how the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO, tallies lease cost. The CBO required the total 20-year expense to be included in the authorization. Almost 40 projects carried a price tag of more than $1 billion.

But the House leadership reached an agreement last month on which projects to move forward.

Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, led the effort in the House to get the Louisiana projects moving forward.

“I’m pleased to see we’re getting a really strong vote up here,” Boustany said in an interview during the vote, noting the progress over the “many hurdles” that have occurred.

“This is going to be a really wonderful gift to pass on to our veterans,” he said.

“We have veterans who have been traveling for hours to get basic health care and, oftentimes, missing out because they didn’t have family who could take time off work,” Boustany said. “So to get this type of clinic access and state-of-the-art health care in a community — especially Lake Charles, which has really had no clinic, and Lafayette that has a small one — is something I’ve been fighting for since I’ve been in Congress.”

Landrieu said Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders already has offered his support.

“After sacrificing to protect our nation, the veterans of south Louisiana deserve to have high-quality, accessible and convenient health care,” Landrieu added. “They cannot wait any longer.”

“It’s absolutely crucial for Louisiana veterans to have both of these clinics,” Vitter stated. “I’ll be offering the House legislation up for unanimous consent in the Senate as soon as possible to expedite the process and not have to mess with a new Senate bill which could potentially slow down the process.”

Dr. Skip Palmintier, a retired surgeon who co-chairs the Veterans Action Coalition of South Louisiana in Lafayette that has fought for the much-expanded clinic for four years, said he is “cautiously optimistic” but “kind of still numb” from all the past delays.

The veterans desperately need greater outpatient care and specialty doctors that can operate out of the larger clinic to avoid driving hours away for routine health issues, Palmintier said.

The hope is there will not be any more delays in order to avoid re-bidding the project next year so shovels can be in the ground next summer, he said.

In Lafayette, a search for a larger clinic site began in late 2010 and a lease approval for the project was initially expected by late 2011. Meanwhile, Veterans Affairs officials worked out a lease extension of the current Lafayette site, which is housed in Lafayette Consolidated Government-owned building. The VA also set up a mobile clinic in Lake Charles, which has provided services since last year.

Louisiana Secretary of Veterans Affairs Rodney Alexander thanked Boustany and praised Tuesday’s House vote.

Alexander said the number of veterans in Louisiana is growing and so are their health care needs and costs. The legislation would represent a nice influx of federal investments in Louisiana, he said.