​Bagpipes played "Bloody Fields of Flanders" as local veterans honor their homeless brothers and sisters in a solemn pinning ceremony in Friendship Park at Loaves & Fishes on Friday, November 10, 2017 in Sacramento. 13% of Loaves and Fishes guests have served in the military. Randy Pench The Sacramento Bee
​Bagpipes played "Bloody Fields of Flanders" as local veterans honor their homeless brothers and sisters in a solemn pinning ceremony in Friendship Park at Loaves & Fishes on Friday, November 10, 2017 in Sacramento. 13% of Loaves and Fishes guests have served in the military. Randy Pench The Sacramento Bee

Foon Rhee

Associate editor, editorial writer and Viewpoints editor

Foon Rhee

Veterans are waiting, and waiting, for a Central Valley VA clinic. What’s taking so long?

By Foon Rhee

frhee@sacbee.com

November 09, 2017 01:47 PM

UPDATED November 10, 2017 04:24 PM

On Veterans Day 2017, many veterans in the Central Valley have a very good question: Why is it taking so darn long to open a badly needed outpatient health clinic?

 
Opinion

The planned 158,000-square-foot, four-floor VA facility just outside Stockton is supposed to offer top-notch, patient-focused services, including primary care, mental health, physical therapy, prosthetics and dental. But under the current schedule, construction won’t start until late 2018 or early 2019. The first patient won’t be treated until summer 2022.

That isn’t soon enough for Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, the latest official to raise a stink about the long wait.

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On Monday, she chartered a bus with 20 veterans and family members for the 80-mile ride from Stockton to the state-of-the-art VA medical center in Palo Alto, where area veterans now go for outpatient care they can’t get at smaller clinics. Depending on the traffic over the Altamont Pass, an appointment can take a full day. She also brought along 2,000 signed postcards calling for additional services closer to home.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials were not exactly thrilled to see them, but the message was sent, Eggman told me later. “They need to know that people are paying attention.”

“The timeline keeps changing,” she added. “In the meantime, people are dying.”

At a press conference, veterans and relatives spoke of hardships from not having a more modern local VA clinic. Diane Knoll of Lodi talked about her son Casey, who served in Afghanistan and suffered from mental health issues when he came home. He had an appointment in Palo Alto in July, but died of a drug overdose the day before. She said more treatment might have made a difference.

Eggman, a Stockton Democrat, says her goal is to get the clinic open by 2020. If she can pull it off, more power to her, because others haven’t had much luck trying to get the VA bureaucracy to pick up the pace.

Congressman Jerry McNerney has pushed for the clinic for years and held a town hall in August that focused on the issue. His office says it asks for updates every couple of weeks. “Every day this facility is not built is a day too late,” he said in a statement. “It is paramount that the VA be held accountable and I will keep fighting for our veterans until this project is complete.”

The VA’s latest project update, posted in August, outlines the current schedule and its history.

The feasibility study for the Central Valley Community Based Outpatient Clinic was done all the way back in 2004. Unlike so many other projects, funding doesn’t appear to be the big problem. In 2010, Congress allocated the money to buy 52 acres in French Camp near San Joaquin General Hospital. In 2016 came $139 million for construction.

This past August, the Army Corps of Engineers took charge of managing the design and construction, although the VA is still “fully engaged” and will run the clinic when it opens. So when the national VA public affairs office replied to my repeated inquiries, it passed the buck to the Army Corps, which has its own bureaucracy and wasn’t commenting.

The latest hold-up: changing plans to account for a more damaging 500-year flood, instead of a 100-year flood. An updated design is to be complete by December.

“It’s one thing after another,” said Eggman, who served four years as an Army medic and comes from a family of veterans.

More than 80,000 veterans live in the service area for the proposed clinic. For now, those who need outpatient care make do with the current Stockton clinic, including four modular buildings that opened in the summer to expand mental health and specialty services.

Shamefully, veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have had to get used to waiting – for health care appointments, for PTSD treatment, for disability benefits.

Politicians, from the president on down, always promise to take care of veterans to honor their service and sacrifice. You’ll hear it again and again at Veterans Day observances. Talk is cheap; action is better. At least Eggman and McNerney are trying.