NEW PORT RICHEY — A budget request by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to consolidate medical services for vets in New Port Richey has given new fuel to the idea of building an outpatient clinic in the mostly vacant site of the former Community Hospital.
As part of President Barack Obama's budget submittal to Congress last week, the VA has proposed letting leases for five smaller facilities within 20 miles of New Port Richey expire and consolidate those services at one outpatient facility.
The proposal would be to enter into a lease for a 114,000-square-feet facility with 525 parking spots in a yet-undetermined location to consolidate services from the VA's Port Richey Specialty Outpatient Clinic, Port Richey Eye Clinic, Port Richey Mental Health Clinic, Port Richey Home-Based Primary Care, and Port Richey Dental Clinic, according to the proposal.
"Current space in these facilities is insufficient to meet the needs of the market," the budget request reads.
If Congress approves the funding, it would be music to the ears of Pasco County Commissioner Henry Wilson, who says the scattering of VA facilities is underserving the county's 54,000 veterans.
Wilson also believes the perfect site for the consolidated facility would be the old Community Hospital building at Marine Parkway and Grand Boulevard, an idea that has been kicked around for years. But initially, he said, the idea has received a cool reception from city officials, who want to have a say in what is done with the old hospital.
"I just think it would be an excellent location to better serve our veterans," Wilson told the Times.
Much of the Community Hospital site – which owner HCA Healthcare now calls the West Pasco Campus – has been vacant for a year, since most of the hospital services were moved to the Medical Center of Trinity on State Road 54, just west of Little Road.
HCA is still using 50,000 square feet of the building for its behavioral health center, but about 250,000 square feet remains vacant. It's still very much up in the air what will be done with the property, according to Medical Center of Trinity spokeswoman Mary Sommise. She said ever since the hospital announced its plans in 2003 to move to Trinity, the idea of establishing a VA facility at the New Port Richey site has been floated.
"We are open to all ideas when it comes to that facility. But right now we really don't know what we are going to do with it," Sommise said.
Wilson said he drafted a letter to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson proposing Community Hospital as an option for the consolidated VA site, but is holding off on sending it until he can meet with New Port Richey leaders.
The commissioner said he has had email correspondence with New Port Richey Interim City Manager Susan Dillinger, but Wilson said she was not in favor of the proposal. Dillinger could not be reached for comment.
Wilson said city officials are understandably concerned that opening a VA clinic would take the facility — once New Port Richey's largest taxpayer — off the property tax rolls. But he hopes to meet with Dillinger to present the upside of having a clinic in the city, which Wilson argues would generate new medical businesses nearby and bring scores of people into the city who would buy goods from local businesses.
New Port Richey Mayor Bob Consalvo said he is surprised Wilson has again raised the issue of bringing a VA clinic to the Community Hospital site. Consalvo said several months ago he and then-City Manager John Schneiger met with Nelson's staffers, who said the 1970s hospital was not a viable option.
"They said the building was just too old and the amount of time and money it would take to build a VA facility there was not feasible. It would be too costly," Consalvo said. "I was shot down by Sen. Nelson's staff on that level, so I was surprised to hear it come up again."
Nelson's office did not return requests for comment, but Wilson said three months ago a staffer with the senator's office gave him the impression that the hospital site could be an option.
New Port Richey City Council member Bill Phillips said he would be open to assessing the pluses and minuses of the idea for the city. He said the prestige of having a VA clinic would boost the city's reputation and generate interest from business community.
"Consolidating those services would be a great thing for our veterans and great thing for the area," Phillips said.
At a City Council meeting Tuesday, Pasco Economic Development Council president John Hagen – whose agency provides economic development services to both Pasco County and New Port Richey – told board members the property tax issue should be weighed by city leaders.
He told the Times he has stressed to all the players involved that the key to any successful plan for the Community Hospital site will be inclusion of all affected parties.
"Let's make sure everybody is on the same page," Hagen said.
Phillips said even though the idea is in its infancy, he appreciates Wilson's proactive approach to getting talks started.
"It's nice to have someone out there kicking the tires," he said.