Local veterans hope proposed laws will cut red tape

Leaders of a local veterans advocacy group said Friday they hope a new piece of legislation could release a Lafayette veterans health clinic from federal red tape.

“We’re standing waiting. We’re not going to wait forever,” said Dr. Skip Palmintier, a retired veteran who co-chairs the Veterans Action Coalition of South Louisiana.

The advocacy group formed to fight for improved health services for veterans in the region. The group has overseen plans for an expanded clinic, meeting with regional VA officials and U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, and U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany.

Plans for the clinic have been delayed — first by a paperwork error and now by a change in how the Congressional Budget Office tallies lease costs. Rather than consider the annual expense of projects, last year, it began totalling the full, 20-year expense for all 38 Veterans Affairs projects — which exceeded $1 billion.

The change brought the clinic planned for Lafayette and Lake Charles and 36 other clinic projects to a halt.

In February, Boustany and Landrieu introduced legislation that would approve about a dozen of the clinics, including Lafayette and Lake Charles.

In the meantime, Vitter said Thursday, a new piece of legislation that could be presented next month asks for approval for “badly needed” clinics and Lafayette is on the short list.

Vitter said talks continue to add the Lake Charles clinic to the list. Since last year, a mobile health unit has provided veterans care in the Lake Charles area.

Palmintier said the legislation approving a handful of clinics may have a shot.

“It’s a lot easier to find that money for five or six dire need clinics than it is for the 38 clinics,” he said. “We’re hopeful, but we’ve been hopeful for the past three and a half years.”

In Lafayette, a clinic operates out of space leased by the city in offices at Jefferson Street and Pinhook Road.

The search for a site for a larger clinic in Lafayette began in late 2010 with lease approvals expected by late 2011. But technical errors in the paperwork for the lease awards for both the Lafayette and Lake Charles clinics detected last year set both projects back.

Palmintier credited the delegation’s bipartisan efforts.

In a letter dated June 17, the Louisiana delegates, along with 63 other bipartisan members of the Senate and House, pressed congressional leaders to step in and break the “log jam,” allowing the projects to move forward.

On Thursday, Boustany testified during the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing on the delays calling on Congress to cut through the red tape and authorize the clinic leases. Congressional leaders have the authority to intervene in the matter, he said.

“Less than a decade ago, congressional leaders used these same maneuvers to bypass similar CBO hurdles that would have prevented military housing construction,” he testified.

“Veterans need and deserve timely access to local care.”