Though it was initially planned to open years ago, it now appears area veterans could have a new, expanded clinic by winter 2016, Veterans Affairs officials said.
For the past few years, a new, expanded clinic has been planned though delays — bungled paperwork and later technicalities involving VA leases — have set back the project. A $26.6 million contract for the project was awarded in March to Johnson Development, of Birmingham, Alabama, to set the new, nearly 30,000-square-foot clinic at 3131 Ambassador Caffery Parkway, across from the Wal-Mart Supercenter.
Even after that contract award, the project faced yet another hurdle when the contract had to be redrawn because it violated budgetary guidelines. The contract revision delayed the project a few months — setting back an estimated spring 2016 opening to the winter.
An active search for a site in Lafayette for the new clinic started in 2010 and the number of errors related to the paperwork has frustrated area veterans. Local veterans organized an advocacy group — Veterans Action Coalition of Southwest Louisiana — to push for an expansion of health care services and now they serve as a watchdog for the project.
“We’re trying to put all our energy into strong vigilance to make sure that what has been passed already does not get failed again,” said Dr. Skip Palmintier, a retired surgeon who serves as the group’s medical adviser and a co-chairman.
At the group’s July meeting, members received an update from Fernando Rivera, the acting network director for the South Central VA Health Care Network that includes Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas and parts of Texas, Missouri, Alabama and Florida. Representatives from the VA Medical Center in Pineville, which provides oversight of the Lafayette clinic, also attended the meeting. Palmintier said Rivera assured veterans that the VA was committed to the new clinic.
“He said the No. 1 thing is for our veteran patients to get the health care they need as close to home as possible. That means the better the clinic, the less they have to travel,” Palmintier said.
The Lafayette clinic will be more than double the size of the existing clinic at Jefferson Street and Pinhook Road. Additional specialty services will be added to enable more veterans to receive care closer to home rather than making the drive to the VA Medical Center in Pineville, where a wider range of health care services are available to veterans.
Lake Charles-area veterans now receive care from a mobile medical unit, which opened in 2012 as the city awaited its first clinic. A lease for the Lake Charles clinic is expected to be awarded this month and its doors also will open by winter 2016, said Tammie Arnold, VA Medical Center of Pineville spokesman.
Leases for both new clinics were initially awarded in early 2012 and then hit a snag due to paperwork errors with VA officials estimating it could take a year to go through the process again. Then, the clinics hit another roadblock over technicalities on how the government tallied the leases. The technicality created a bottleneck for other planned VA projects across the country that wasn’t dislodged until last year when the leases of the two Louisiana clinics and about 20 others were authorized by Congress.
In the meantime, VA officials are still searching for a site to lease additional space to relocate its mental health services out of the existing VA clinic location in Lafayette. The lease won’t be awarded until November, following the rejection of a site local veterans and congressional leaders deemed a viable location.
Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center had submitted a proposal to lease unused medical office building space at its former campus, though that proposal was rejected by the VA. Lourdes spokeswoman Elisabeth Arnold said the hospital wasn’t given a reason for the rejection.
“Lourdes was seeking to lease space to the VA in one of our remaining medical buildings on St. Mary Boulevard until they finished construction of their new clinic. We embrace the opportunity to work with the VA and are disappointed to learn they did not accept our lease agreement,” Elisabeth Arnold said in an email.
Local congressman have issued statements railing against VA officials for denying the Lourdes lease. In a letter dated July 3 addressed to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, U.S. Sen. David Vitter alleges the refusal of Lourdes as a site for mental health services was a deliberate delay of projects for local veterans.
“The fact that the temporary clinic in Lafayette was delayed (due) to religious freedom requirements with Catholic hospitals, which the VA knew existed and even dealt with in Baton Rouge, makes it look like the VA is deliberately delaying the opening of these much needed facilities,” Vitter wrote.
Tammie Arnold said she is still awaiting approval to release a statement related to The Advocate’s questions about the criticism over the mental health services lease.
She said a lease for the mental health services space could be awarded by late November and services at the new location available before the end of the year.
“This will allow medical services to expand into this space until the replacement (clinic) is operational,” Tammie Arnold said.
Vitter’s letter accompanies a report of the analysis that the group planned to send to McDonald. In the report, the coalition alleges that the delays for expanded clinics and services in Lake Charles and Lafayette is a means to protect the budget of the Alexandria facility to force veterans to continue to drive to the central Louisiana site for services unavailable in southwestern Louisiana.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.