Expanding Health Care for Veterans: St. Joseph County Health Care Center

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Joe worked to provide quality and convenient access to health care to Hoosier veterans across Indiana. In October 2015, Joe joined VA officials to break ground on the new St. Joseph County Health Care Center. The St. Joseph County Health Care Center will expand health care options for Hoosier veterans in north central Indiana, meaning many of our local veterans will be a short ride away from important health services, including primary care and mental health providers. Joe worked to make the St. Joseph County Health Center a reality since he started serving in the House of Representatives in 2007.

In 2007, Joe first asked the VA to evaluate the services provided to South Bend area veterans and provide data to better understand how often, how far, and for what services local Hoosier veterans must travel to receive health care. Joe held roundtables and meetings with veterans, advocates, and community leaders to discuss expanding veterans’ services in St. Joseph County. In 2009, Joe and then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced approval of the St. Joseph County Health Care Center. In the years that followed, Joe worked with his colleagues, Republican and Democratic, to secure congressional authorization and funding for the center, and then worked with the VA to open an interim health care center in South Bend in 2012. The new permanent facility, the St. Joseph County Health Care Center, will be able to serve more veterans than the interim health care center. The St. Joseph County Health Care Center will provide care to veterans in several north central and northwest Indiana counties.

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In the News

South Bend Tribune: New VA clinic to be built in Mishawaka (July 2015)

By: Erin Blasko

MISHAWAKA — The Department of Veterans Affairs has approved construction of a new, state-of-the-art outpatient center near Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center in Mishawaka, officials announced Wednesday.

The 71,000-square-foot clinic will replace the existing, 18,000-square-foot facility on Western Avenue in downtown South Bend.

Though not a full-scale hospital, the center will offer additional services such as expanded mental health care and laboratory services to local veterans.

Currently, veterans must travel downstate for such services.

The new center will be at the corner of Fir Road and Trinity Place on the far east side of Mishawaka, on land currently owned by Mishawaka-based Cressy Land Investments LLC.

It will be called the St. Joseph County Health Care Center.

“This announcement is an important step toward bringing expanded VA health care to veterans across north central Indiana,” U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said in a statement Wednesday. “North central Indiana veterans deserve more convenient care.”

Donnelly, who previously represented north central Indiana as a member of Congress, has long advocated for expanded access to health care for area veterans.

Nearly a decade of lobbying culminated Monday in a letter from the VA announcing the new clinic.

The letter, provided by Donnelly’s office, announces that the VA has awarded a lease contract for the center to Ambrose Property Group VA, of Indianapolis, with a completion date of spring 2018.

Ambrose will construct the $38 million facility and then lease it to the VA, which will operate the clinic.

“We will be able to provide a much broader range of service than in the past,” Denise Deitzen, director of the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System, said during a press conference Wednesday at the clinic on Western Avenue.

Deitzen said the new clinic will employ more than 100 people.

U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Jimtown, who has been deeply involved in efforts to reform the VA in the wake of recent scandals, welcomed news of the new center in a statement Wednesday.

“After several years of planning and waiting, I’m happy this project is moving forward. Our veterans put everything on the line to defend our freedoms and giving them access to local services is the least we can do,” Walorski said.

She added, “I’ll continue to monitor this project to ensure it’s executed on an expeditious timeline.”

Mishawaka Mayor Dave Wood, for his part, described the new center as adding to the city’s growing reputation as “a regional leader and destination for health care and wellness services.”

“This site makes sense,” he added, “and a VA clinic at this location will be rewarding for many veterans from all over the northern Indiana and southwest Michigan region who wish to utilize it.”

He said the city of Mishawaka has committed to relocate about 1,200 feet of Trinity Place south of its current alignment to create a larger site for the project.

Kevin Kelsheimer, the veterans service officer for St. Joseph County, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

This will be the VA’s second move in less than a decade.

The clinic started in a 7,000-square-foot building on South Ironwood Drive, south of the U.S. 20 bypass, in South Bend before moving to Western Avenue in May 2012.

The existing facility occupies the former Gates Toyota showroom at Western and William Street, across the street from Four Winds Field.

The South Bend Redevelopment Commission paid $3.3 million to buy and renovate the property in January 2012.

Ambulatory Care Services, a VA contractor, currently leases it for $280,000 per year as part of a five-year contract that expires in 2017.

The move to Western was seen as temporary at the time, the final step before construction of a new clinic elsewhere in the area.

Even so, South Bend leaders had hoped to keep the outpatient clinic and its nearly 40 existing jobs in the city.

In a statement Wednesday, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a veteran and a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve, described the new center as “overall, a positive development for veterans in St. Joseph County.”

“One concern is that compared with the current clinic in downtown South Bend, this facility will be located further away from most residents, with less access to public transportation,” he said.

“We will be working with the Department of Veterans Affairs, urging them to address this issue to ensure all veterans have access to the new site,” he said.

Fir road is not currently served by Transpo, which provides bus service in South Bend and Mishawaka.

Transpo General Manager David Cangany said Wednesday few opportunities exist to expand service that way.

“It’s something that we can explore, but given our current budget constraints and no increase in funding, at the end of the day we’re doing what we can just to hold onto and maintain service,” Cangany said.

“We’d be open to conversations on making it work,” he added. “At the end of the day we want to make sure we’re able to meet the needs of our citizens.”

Said Deitzen, the VA director, “We’ll be working with the community to see how we can adjust.”

Adopting an optimistic tone, Buttigieg said the loss of the clinic “creates an economic development opportunity in a highly promising area of downtown, near Four Winds Field.”

He added, “Our planning and economic development teams will be in touch with stakeholders in the business community about ideas to make the most of this opportunity.”

South Bend Tribune: Officials pledge access to planned VA clinic in Mishawaka (October 2015)

By: Joseph Dits 

MISHAWAKA -- Within a couple of weeks, contractors could begin the city's roughly $1 million job of making room for the new Department of Veterans Affairs clinic that will rise here on Trinity Place, Mayor Dave Wood said.

Using tax increment finance dollars, the city will start digging up about 1,200 feet of the road, plus its ornamental lights, multiuse path and the utilities underneath -- which the city had built a few years ago to entice commercial development -- and move them to the south.

On Friday, dozens of veterans and officials broke ground at Trinity Place's southern edge, which VA officials said will be the center of the 71,000-square-foot building. The $38 million complex would be completed by spring 2018.

"Until they get this in here, I'll rely on my Medicare rather than the VA," said an anxious 79-year-old George Proctor Sr., who served eight years in the U.S. Marines Corps and then retired as a master sergeant with the U.S. Army, including a stint in the Korean War.

Using a walker at the ceremony and nursing bad knees, vision and other aches, the Mishawaka veteran lamented that it takes "too long to get an appointment" at the VA's temporary clinic in South Bend and that the VA clinic in Fort Wayne is too far.

U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, who lives in nearby Granger, spoke, too, of impatience to reach this point. He recounted how, starting in 2007, when he was a U.S. representative, he pushed for a new clinic and then for its funding, which Congress appropriated in 2012.

"We made a promise that we'd protect you," the Democratic senator said to the veterans.

"It's about time we fulfill a promise to our veterans here," echoed U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Jimtown, who has been involved in efforts to reform the VA. She noted that it was "a pleasure" to work with Donnelly on the clinic, adding, "There's no partisan issue when it comes to veterans; it's an American issue."

St. Joseph County Health Care Center, as it will be called, will offer expanded mental health care, audiology, radiology primary medical care and other services for several counties in northern Indiana. It will be owned by Ambrose Property Group VA, of Indianapolis, and leased to the VA, who will run it.

Mayor Wood said the city will make Trinity Place a "high priority" for snow removal and for restoring electricity in outages and, he added, "We will show that this city was the right choice."

When the VA announced in late July that it had picked the Mishawaka site, questions arose over its accessibility since it's farther from South Bend's greater population.

John Shealey, who will oversee creation of the project, said he expects to begin talking with Transpo officials in the coming weeks about extending bus service to the site by the time it opens. The closest buses come is to Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center, about a half mile away.

Transpo officials have said that their abilities are limited given the constraints of funding.

Shealey, who's assistant director of the VA's Northern Indiana Health Care System, said he's optimistic that bus service could be extended, given that the clinic will see sizable traffic -- about 200 to 300 patients per day -- that might support bus fares. Denise Deitzen, the system's director, said the VA has discussed other alternatives if its "best option," a Transpo bus, doesn't work out.

Walorski and Donnelly both said they expect local officials to ensure access for veterans, but they'll keep an eye on it and jump in if needed.

"We're not going to leave anyone hanging," Walorski said of veterans.

Donnelly also announced that Deitzen, who has played a central role in the project during her three years as director, will leave Oct. 18 for a promotion within the VA. Deitzen said she will oversee eight hospitals in all of Wisconsin, most of Illinois and all of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. She now oversees the care of 44,000 veterans in northern Indiana but will take on the care of 160,000 veterans and eight hospitals.

An interim director will be announced soon, followed by a search for a new director, she said.

WNDU: VA leaders, elected officials celebrate groundbreaking of new St. Joseph Co. facility (October 2015)

By: Kofo Lasaki

The groundbreaking ceremony for the new St. Joseph County Health Care Center took place on Friday.

Officials from the Veterans Association Northern Indiana Health Care System joined elected officials to celebrate the beginning of a new health care facility that will serve veterans in the northwest Indiana counties of St. Joseph, Elkhart, Lake, Porter and La Porte.

Veterans who would have to travel two hours to receive care in Fort Wayne will soon have a facility closer to home.

“On behalf of the 54,000 veterans in my district and the growing veteran population, we must ensure we provide quality access to VA health care,” Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) said. “As a Member of House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, we take a lesson from every veteran who took an oath to defend our nation – never give up. I take that oath to heart and want veterans here in Indiana and throughout the country to know that I will not give up the fight for you in Congress.”

U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly says he began sitting down with veterans in 2007 who said they needed an upgrade in their health care facility. The center will offer important services like expanded mental healthcare, according to Donnelly.

One of the most important advantages of the new facility is it will lesson the travel time for current veterans who need medical attention.

"When our soldiers come home as damaged goods, they need to have a top-flight facility where they can get in, in a timely fashion, and get the best care available. This will accomplish that. This will be, from everything I've seen, everything we've hoped for. From all the plans I've seen, this will be exactly what they deserve," says Rich Mrozinski, who served twice in the Vietnam War.

Senator Donnelly says this new facility is keeping with the promise to protect our men and women who serve our country.