WASHINGTON — The opening of a new, much-enlarged Veterans Affairs medical clinic in Lafayette has been pushed back to October 2016, nearly a year beyond the previously announced date, a VA official said Tuesday.
“Just when south Louisiana’s veterans are given a chance for optimism, the VA goes back on its word again,” U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., said in a news release. “If the VA thinks they can treat south Louisiana veterans like this and get away with it, they’re wrong.”
Boustany said he was not informed of the delay by the VA, and his release cited a news account of a town hall meeting Monday in Lake Charles, at which VA officials made the announcement of the postponement.
A similar delay will affect the scheduled opening of a clinic in Lake Charles. That facility now is expected to begin seeing patients in June 2016.
The schedule changes are due to feedback from bidders on the clinic construction contracts, who said the original time frames contemplated by the VA were not feasible, said Lynn Rogers, facilities strategic planner for the VA health center in Alexandria.
Both clinics are administered by the Alexandria VA center, 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.
Boustany’s southwest Louisiana congressional district includes the sites of both clinics. The path to opening the new clinics was smoothed in August, after years of delay, when President Barack Obama signed a VA reform bill that included approval for those clinics and two dozen others around the country.
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, a VA spokeswoman said this summer.
The VA also operates a mobile clinic in Lake Charles that includes a primary-care team working in two examination rooms. Neither of the southwest Louisiana clinics is considered sufficient by the agency for the medical needs of veterans in the area.
Congress approved the VA reform bill 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 authorized $17 billion to fix the problems. It included $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 included $5 billion to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff.
The southwest Louisiana clinics and the others across the country are covered by $1.6 billion for lease payments in the bill.
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, Boustany 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.
The VA will not announce the specific locations of the new southwest Louisiana clinics until the leases are signed in late February, Rogers said.
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