VA clinics in Acadiana are nearing congressional approval

Long awaited veterans’ clinics in Lafayette and Lake Charles could receive federal authorization within the next couple weeks, the head of the state Department of Veterans Affairs said Wednesday.

Secretary David LaCerte, who is visiting Washington during a two-day trip, said he received assurances from members of the veterans affairs panels in the U.S. House and Senate that the Lafayette and Lake Charles clinics would stay in the legislation that is being worked over in conference committee.

“I’m being told that they want to finish this and send it to the president before the August recess,” LaCerte said after meeting Wednesday afternoon with U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister, R-Swartz, which rounded out his visits with the Louisiana congressional delegation.

“I’m confident, based on what I have been told, that Lafayette and Lake Charles are going to stay where they are in the final version” of the legislation, LaCerte said.

The U.S. House passed veterans’ affairs bills last year, but they never were taken up in the Senate because of procedural wrangling. The Senate drafted its own measures, which were passed in June in response to the recent national uproar following media reports the some veterans died while waiting for appointments. Inspectors then reported that some members of the VA staff falsified records and created secret lists to cover-up the delays in giving veterans appointments for medical treatments.

A number of issues are addressed in the sweeping legislation. U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, threw into the legislative gumbo authorizations for the VA to include the Lafayette and Lake Charles clinics in a rules exception that would allow the VA to lease space for 26 medical clinics in 18 states that have been delayed.

Plans for the clinics stalled when congressional budget officials adopted a new, higher-cost formula for estimating lease expenses. Both sides in the veterans’ legislation seemed to have agreed to exempt the clinics from the budget rules and allow the VA to lease the space.

But those provisions have not been approved yet and congress is still hammering out differences between the bills.

LaCerte said veterans in Acadiana became uncomfortable after hearing a couple weeks ago that U.S. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., withdrew plans from the legislation for a clinic in Tulsa.

Coburn voiced concerns about continuing the project: “There is little evidence it will markedly improve quality of health or access for Tulsa area veterans over what currently exists.”

“Some of that language made a lot of folks in Acadiana uncomfortable,” LaCerte said. “When I heard about that, I wanted to make sure that nobody on the conference committee was pushing to further reduce authorization that would put our two facilities in jeopardy.”

Lake Charles has no outpatient clinic; however, in May 2012 the VA started providing services in a recreational vehicle.

In Lafayette, services for veterans are being offered at the existing community-based outpatient clinic. That clinic is in an 11,208-square-foot Lafayette Consolidated Government-owned building at the corner of Pinhook Road and Jefferson Street.

LaCerte said he also wanted to tell the congressmen about the complaints he’s hearing from visiting veterans around the state in “town hall” meetings.

“On the state level, I will continue to meet personally with Louisiana veterans so that I can learn about the issues they are facing,” LaCerte said.

He has scheduled meetings next week in Houma and north Louisiana the following week.