VA clinics to open in 18 months

A new, much-enlarged Veterans Affairs medical clinic should open in Lafayette 18 months from now to provide outpatient care to eligible veterans in the area, a VA spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The path to opening the new Lafayette clinic was smoothed last week, after years of delay, when President Barack Obama signed a VA reform bill that included approval for that outpatient clinic and 25 others around the country, including one in Lake Charles.

The existing Lafayette VA clinic occupies the War Memorial Building at 2100 Jefferson Street. The new clinic, which will move to a building constructed for it, should be roughly double the size of the current one, the spokeswoman said.

The VA also operates a mobile clinic in Lake Charles that includes a primary-care team working in two examination rooms in the vehicle. Neither of the Southwest Louisiana clinics is considered sufficient by the agency for the medical needs of veterans in the area.

Both clinics are administered by the VA health center in Alexandria, the nearest full-service VA hospital. The VA operates two other hospitals in Louisiana, in New Orleans and in Shreveport. Nationwide, the agency — the largest single U.S. health care provider — treats 9 million patients at 150 hospitals and 820 clinics.

The green light for the clinics came with the Thursday signing of the bill, which Congress approved as a response to the national uproar over veterans’ health care following reports that surfaced in April that as many as 40 veterans may have died while waiting an average of 115 days for appointments at the Phoenix VA hospital or its clinics. Since then, investigators have found long wait times, and falsified records covering them up, at other VA facilities nationwide.

The bill authorizes $17 billion to fix the problems. It includes $10 billion in emergency spending to make it easier for veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to obtain outside care. It also includes $5 billion to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff.

The bill also would expand a scholarship program for veterans to include surviving spouses of military members who died in the line of duty, allow all veterans to qualify for in-state college tuition and grant the Veterans Affairs secretary authority to immediately fire senior executives, while providing employees with streamlined appeal rights.

The Southwest Louisiana clinics and the others across the country are covered by $1.6 billion for lease payments in the bill.

Final plans for the Louisiana clinics are contingent on the conclusion of lease negotiations, which should be wrapped up in about six months, the spokeswoman said. It should take another six months to remodel an existing building in Lake Charles that will house the clinic there, she said, and another six months after that to complete construction of the new building for the Lafayette clinic. Because the leases are not yet signed, the VA would not disclose the addresses for the new clinics.

The journey to fruition for the clinics has been a tortuous one. In a June letter urging congressional negotiators to provide for the clinics in the VA bill, Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, whose district includes both Lafayette and Lake Charles, said it had been six years since the VA first promised the clinics.

“Veterans in my district have endured a series of ridiculous delays as they wait for needed care,” wrote Boustany, a physician. “First, the VA secretary admitted to bureaucratic errors that caused him to cancel the first round of bidding for construction of clinics. Then, after four years of looking at required square footage, VA officials realized they needed to request congressional approval for these two leases. Later, CBO changed its treatment of VA leases, placing the future of these clinics and the entire VA leasing program in legislative limbo.”

CBO is the Congressional Budget Office, and its decision to adopt a different method for estimating the lease expenses inflated the costs and entangled the program in budget-balancing rules. The House passed a bill last year that maneuvered around the rules as far as the clinics are concerned, but it — and a matching bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. — stalled in the Senate. Ultimately, the language from that legislation was included in the VA reform bill signed by Obama.

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