President Barack Obama signed sweeping legislation Thursday to ease access to health care for the nation's veterans, a $16.3 billion package that includes money for 27 new or expanded VA clinics across the country.
One is slated for Pasco County, the only Florida site identified in the bill.
That's welcome news to veterans like Steve McDonald, who drives nearly an hour from his home in New Port Richey for treatment at Tampa's James A. Haley VA Medical Center for injuries he sustained in Vietnam.
"It's just a long drive and there's a lot of traffic," said McDonald, 66, commander of VFW Post 6180 in New Port Richey.
The plan, which is still preliminary, calls for consolidating services at five existing clinics in New Port Richey and Port Richey: the main outpatient clinic, a dental clinic, a mental health annex, an eye clinic and a center that coordinates home-bound veteran services.
All of those would be housed in a 114,000-square-foot space, more than doubling the square-footage of the five clinics combined. A Zephyrhills veterans clinic would not be affected.
"The convenience factor alone of having all of those services in one location … will be a great benefit," said Karen Collins, public affairs officer at the Haley hospital, which would oversee the new Pasco clinic. "Plus it will be new modern facility."
The new law also allows the Department of Veterans Affairs to hire thousands of doctors, nurses and other health professionals at the VA's nearly 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics nationwide. Employment rules will be revised to make it easier to fire senior VA executives judged to be negligent or performing poorly.
The legislation is a response to reports of veterans dying while awaiting appointments to see VA doctors and of a widespread practice of employees covering up monthslong wait times for appointments. In some cases, employees received bonuses based on falsified records.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, who pushed to add the Pasco clinic to the VA bill, said the location hasn't been determined, but it likely will end up near New Port Richey or Land O'Lakes.
One possibility, he said, is the former Community Hospital in New Port Richey, though that could prove too costly to retrofit.
HCA Trinity, which closed Community Hospital two years ago when it opened the Medical Center of Trinity on State Road 54, issued a statement that seemed open to a lease arrangement with the VA.
"We have discussed for some time the possibility of adding a wide range of services at the Medical Center of Trinity West Pasco Campus, where there is ample space and parking, and we would welcome the opportunity to explore this further," CEO Leigh Massengill said.
Bilirakis said he plans to hold town hall meetings in a few weeks to identify locations and talk about the clinic's services.
The project is still in design phases and many details are being worked out. He said he hopes the clinic offers services not provided now, including radiological treatments.
Whether that happens is up in the air. Collins said the immediate aim is to consolidate existing services.
The privately constructed and owned site would be leased by the VA for $11 million over 20 years. Once a deal is reached, it would be required to open within 26 months, Bilirakis said.
About 54,000 veterans live in Pasco. Of those, 14,000 use the various clinics now, he said. With anticipated growth, he expects the centralized clinic to eventually treat 30,000 veterans yearly.
"This is huge deal because our veterans are our top priority," said Bilirakis, whose father, Mike, pushed to open the first outpatient veterans clinic in New Port Richey as a congressman in the early 1980s.
Pasco officials expressed hope the project will move forward.
"Our veterans are spending two-plus hours driving to sit for another couple of hours waiting," County Commissioner Henry Wilson said.
Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker said her staff has talked with the VA and HCA Trinity.
"Anything we can do to help our veterans so they don't have to wait so long for care has to be a plus," she said.
Contact Rich Shopes at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236. Follow @richshopes.