Stalled vet health center gets legislative boost

Hugh Lessig
South Hampton Roads vet health care center a priority

A new Senate bill would authorize a veterans care center in South Hampton Roads along with 23 similar medical projects across the nation that have been stalled in Congress.

Sen. Mark R. Warner is the leading co-sponsor on legislation that aims to make the regional center a reality. It is considered a top priority for the fast-growing Hampton VA Medical Center.

Congress has delayed approving this project and others because the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has changed how it rates their financial impact.

Before 2012, CBO scored these projects – which result in signed leases, even if it requires new construction -- as equal to the annual lease payment. But then it switched, saying Congress should take into account the full cost up front. Because many of these leases run for 20 years, it made it more difficult to authorize the projects to move ahead.

Currently, 18 leases in a dozen states have been stalled in Congress for more than one year. The projects cover fiscal years 2015 and 2016.

During visits to the region, Warner has repeatedly expressed frustration that the center has not been built. The Hampton VA's service area stretches from Virginia's Eastern Shore to portions of northeastern North Carolina. But its largest population base is in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk region.

A health center that offers same-day surgery and other basic services would eliminate the need for thousands of veterans to travel to Hampton, where space and parking is at a premium.

A few years ago, the Hampton VA recorded the nation's longest wait times for primary care patients. But the hospital has turned around that trend, hiring more health-care providers and creating additional space where possible. Warner was critical of the hospital's long wait times, and now he gives them credit for reversing course.

The hospital needs this new project to take the next step, he said.

In a news release that announced the legislation, Warner said, "I am frankly astounded that at a time when so much attention is focused on how to improve access to care at the VA, Congress has failed to take what is really a very simple step in approving two dozen badly-needed medical facilities."

The bill's co-sponsors include Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice presidential candidate.

The proposed South Hampton Roads center would offer primary and specialty care, day surgery, an eye clinic, a pharmacy and radiology services. It would cost about $18 million the first year. That includes $12.8 million in one-time costs and $5.2 million in rent.

The remaining annual rent stays at $5.2 million for 20 years. Warner's legislation seeks $18 million for the first year cost, as opposed to a total cost of $116.8 million, which is how CBO would score it.

The bill is dubbed the "Providing Veterans Overdue Care Act of 2016."

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.

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