NEW PORT RICHEY — Congressman Gus Bilirakis said he wanted to hear from veterans about possible locations for a new Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Pasco County.
But when about 100 veterans gathered for a town hall meeting Wednesday night at the West Pasco Government Center, the Palm Harbor Republican got an earful, including complaints about long wait times at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa.
"We have an eye clinic here, but it takes 15 months to get an appointment because they don't have any doctors here and they just send you to Haley anyway," said Navy veteran Lauren Price of New Port Richey. Another veteran, Paul Maslow, 62, of Hudson said, "We need a facility with an E.R. We don't need another outpatient clinic that's closed on the weekends. When we signed on the dotted line, the government promised it was going to take care of us. By God, you're going to live up to that agreement."
Bilirakis pushed for legislation signed three weeks ago by President Obama to include funding for the clinic. The sweeping package of bills, to improve access to health care for the nation's veterans, included funding for 27 new or expanded clinics nationwide. Pasco, the only Florida site in the legislation, received $11 million.
VA officials say the money will be used to lease a 114,000-square-foot facility to house services now offered at five VA clinics in New Port Richey and Port Richey.
Before moving ahead with the plan, Bilirakis said he wanted to hear from vets about potential new clinic sites and services.
While many lobbed complaints about their treatment at Haley, others said they hoped the clinic could be housed at the old Community Hospital in New Port Richey, or at least nearby. A handful mentioned the Trinity area off State Road 54.
As for services, the veterans said they wanted physical therapy, oncology, cardiology and dental and eye care so they don't have to drive to Tampa for the services.
Haley director Kathleen Fogarty, who also attended, made no promises but said the VA might consider expanded specialty services.
Whether the clinic opens at Community Hospital, Trinity or close by is unknown. The VA intends to lease the clinic and solicit bids from landowners and developers. Along with veterans' preferences, the administration will consider costs, demographics, traffic patterns, flood potential and a host of other issues before choosing a location. Once an agreement is reached, the property owner will have 26 months to open the facility.
"I just want the veterans to have a say in the process," Bilirakis said afterward.
Contact Rich Shopes at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236. Follow @richshopes.