Lafayette, Lake Charles VA clinics at risk of closure over funding

A Lafayette veterans clinic could close later this year and plans for a new veterans clinic in Lake Charles faces more delays unless Congress approves funding for both projects, said members of the south Louisiana congressional delegation Thursday.

The two clinics are on a list of 15 new or expanded veterans clinics proposed across the country. Congressional authorization is required for Department of Veterans Affairs leases over $1 million. The Congressional Budget Office last year began requiring the full 20-year lease costs — estimated at more than $1.2 billion for the 15 projects — to be authorized up front.

Proposed legislation, however, would authorize 12 of the projects, including those planned for south Louisiana, for fiscal years 2013 and 2014, and authorize three other projects for fiscal year 2013.

U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-New Orleans, announced on Thursday the proposed legislation, called “Keep Our Commitment to Veterans Act” and it would allow the Lafayette clinic to stay open and authorize leases for a new clinic in Lake Charles, an expanded clinic in Lafayette and other VA clinic projects across the country. U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie, and a dozen other senators from states with proposed clinic projects also co-sponsored the bill.

“The current lease on the veterans clinic in Lafayette expires on November 13,” Boustany said in a news release. “The VA’s ability to continue operating at the facility is time limited. Veterans deserve a long-term solution. With demand increasing and existing resources strained, our veterans already face delays, overcrowding, and longer traveling distances when seeking care.”

A search for a Lafayette clinic site began in late 2010, and local veterans anticipated a deal with developers to be signed by December 2011; however, technical errors in paperwork detected last year delayed the lease awards for both south Louisiana clinics. The errors could not be corrected, so the lengthy site selection process for both projects started over. Now the clinics face more delays unless the funding is approved by Congress, Boustany and Landrieu said.

“The latest issue is now with the leases for these clinics,” Landrieu said. “The method of authorizing leases should not stand in the way of our veterans receiving the high-quality health care they deserve after sacrificing to protect our nation. This legislation will authorize these clinics, an important step in our continued work to provide for our veterans.”

Property leases for both projects were on schedule but now have been placed on hold, according to information provided by Tammie Arnold, public affairs officer with the VA Medical Center in Pineville.

If congressional approval is received by the end of March, leases for both projects could be granted in May. If Congress does not authorize the leases by mid-April, the site selection process will have to start over again, Arnold said in an email.

Lake Charles currently has no outpatient clinic; however, in May 2012 the VA opened a mobile clinic to provide care following the delay created by the technical error. In Lafayette, services at the existing community-based outpatient clinic were expanded. The existing clinic is located in an 11,208 square-foot Lafayette Consolidated Government-owned building at the corner of Pinhook Road and Jefferson Street.

Arnold was not available for comment Thursday afternoon, but Palmintier said closure is a real possibility if VA and city-parish officials can’t work out an agreement. Come November, the current lease goes into a “holdover status” and the VA must “come up with alternative ways of keeping it going because the present lease can’t be extended past its date,” Palmintier said.

“The VA could possibly remain in there if there was another type of agreement with the lessor, but the details of that have not been worked out,” he said.

The city-parish government is open to negotiating an extension, but has not been contacted by VA officials yet, said Dee Stanley, city-parish chief administrative officer. There’s still time though, he added.

“The lease doesn’t expire until November. We have no plans or designs on that building. We anticipated they would be leasing it beyond November. The question is what are the terms of that lease. That’s really for the VA to put on the table.”