The men and women who have served our country during times of war, or in case of war, have been fighting a new conflict to ensure they have access to the federally provided health care they were promised.
But now part of that battle might turn into a turf war between the west and east sides of Pasco County.
Veterans gathered at the West Pasco Government Center last week to tell U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis where they want to build a new consolidated center made possible thanks to a Veterans Affairs bill signed by President Barack Obama last month.
The bill has set aside $1.3 billion to create or expand 27 VA clinics around the country, including Florida’s only new one — a planned 114,000-square-foot facility that would consolidate five existing locations on the west side of the county.
Many veterans have come to depend on having those centers in New Port Richey and Port Richey, and some are balking at the idea of moving the new consolidated center into Land O’ Lakes, or even into Zephyrhills or Dade City.
No plans have been finalized, or even proposed, on where this new facility would take place. But a majority of those speaking up last week were pushing for the government to take over the former Community Hospital campus in New Port Richey. That hospital shut down in 2012 after its owner, HCA Healthcare, opened the new Medical Center at Trinity on State Road 54 just east of Little Road.
But bringing that building up to the standards needed for a new VA clinic could be costly.
“We tried to get Community Hospital about seven years ago,” said one veteran, Paul Rizzo. “We met with the VA, and they turned us down, because they said the building was unsafe. It was only built for one floor, but it’s three floors.”
Despite that, Rizzo wants to have the new clinic there.
“I still say that Community Hospital is one of the best places that we could use,” he said. “It’s been standing there for 50 years now, so how is that unsafe? They say we need a complete overhaul of the building there, but what we really need is a complete overhaul of the VA.”
The Land O’ Lakes area has also been shared as a possible location for a new VA clinic, since it’s in central Pasco. However, east Pasco also remains on the radar simply because of the available land out there in case VA officials decide to build something new.
But getting out that way might create as many problems as simply going to the James Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, some say. Plus, a clinic already exists near Florida Hospital Zephyrhills. That facility will not be a part of the consolidation, officials said.
“Most people, especially disabled veterans, have financial problems, and transportation is a huge factor in their lives,” said Lauren Price, an Iraqi war veteran who is one of the founders of the VeteranWarriors advocacy group. “We have some limited mass transit here in West Pasco, and there is much more minimal mass transit that gets out to Trinity. And before someone offers all that real estate out in Dade City or Zephyrhills, I will remind them that the only mass transit out there are the mud swamp runs.”
Despite hosting the town hall, Bilirakis will have minimal input on where the new facility will be located, he said. That decision, instead, will rely on the VA department itself, which also will receive an additional $10 billion to outsource some of the care to private doctors when VA officials get behind. It also gives Robert McDonald, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs secretary, the power to remove senior executives not meeting expectations more easily than before.
Congress put the legislation in motion this past summer after a series of reports highlighting backlogs in service and other problems at VA hospitals around the country. A government investigation found some of those hospitals were guilty of flubbing appointment lists while supervisors turned a blind eye.
The report, however, said there was nothing connecting the delays created by that activity with preventable deaths.
But some of the veterans in New Port Richey still feel like they’ve been treated improperly by the system. However, James Haley VA Medical Center chief Kathleen Fogarty said many of the delays and problems experienced locally are from the sheer volume facilities like hers have taken on.
“I am very pleased to tell you that all of our clinics were audited, and we did not have any discrepancies in the scheduling,” Fogarty said. “But will I tell you that we don’t have any waiting lists? Absolutely not.”
That’s because her system handles 89,000 unique patients every year, she said. Haley has 4,000 patients a day, and conducts 42,000 consultations a month.
“I am very blessed to have the University of South Florida a bridge away from me,” Fogarty said. “They don’t have a hospital they use to train all of their doctors. We are the primary facility they use, which is a great thing for us because I think we get the best doctors out there.”
Besides where the new consolidated clinic should be located, the more than 100 veterans who attended also shared some of the services they’d like to see there. That includes urgent care, physical therapy, radiology, women’s care and greater access to dental, Bilirakis spokeswoman Summer Robertson said.
If any other veterans wants to express their preferences on where the clinic should go and what should be there, they can call Bilirakis’ office at (813) 501-4942, or send an email to the congressman through his website at Bilirakis.house.gov.
Published September 3, 2014
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