Wearing a “Proud to be an American” t-shirt, Herbert Wilkinson, 93, hobbled with his cane after his first look at a new VA clinic in Ventura, declaring himself a happy man.
The long-awaited 50,000-square-foot facility was inaugurated Wednesday at an open house and will open on September 27. It will bring more providers and new services in an expansion that is expected to bring care closer to home for approximately 10,000 local veterans.
For Wilkinson, an Oak View resident who spent two years in the military after the end of World War II, the new clinic should mean fewer marathon trips on jammed freeways from Los Angeles to other sites. Veterans.
“My son and I were traveling in West Los Angeles, and it wasn’t fun. It took all day,” Wilkinson said, offering an impromptu note about the new digs. “Nine. 10 is perfect. I never give a 10.”
The clinic is off Highway 101 on Ralston Street in Ventura, a site formerly occupied by the Ventura County Star. The dilapidated building was demolished and replaced with a sprawling facility more than twice the size of the Oxnard contract clinic it replaces. The old site, off Rose Avenue, closes September 23.
The new house was not cheap. The VA will pay $3.7 million a year on a 20-year lease for the new clinic. They also gave landowners $9.7 million to develop the site.
New services not offered at the Oxnard site include dental, physiotherapy, rehabilitation, eye care and audiology. There will also be primary care, podiatry, cardiology, dentistry, imaging and other services. The clinic will offer medication consultations but will not have an on-site pharmacy.
Other services like MRIs will still require travel to other facilities.
“We won’t do everything here, but our goal is really to provide a hub for care,” said Robert Merchant, executive director of ambulatory care services for the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System which serves five counties, including Ventura.
The new clinic includes a Women’s Health Unit, the first free-standing unit of its kind in the Greater Los Angeles system, with a separate entrance and waiting area. It’s a big change, especially for women who have been assaulted or harassed while on duty, Merchant said.
“You usually walk into a space full of men,” he said. “For a lot of women, it’s traumatic.”
The clinic also includes more space for mental health care and a unit dedicated to homeless veterans.
The facility will be operated by the VA system and not by a contracted healthcare company like previous VA clinics in the county. The connection is long overdue, said Ron Fitzgarrald, public affairs manager for Ventura County Vietnam Veterans.
“We expect better care because they are VA-run and VA-staffed,” he said, saying private companies hired by the government can be obsessed with economic interests.
Wednesday’s open house drew about 500 veterans. Fitzgarrald, who served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, stood at the back of a spacious canteen, explaining how his group and other veterans have long clamored for a new clinic. His voice trembled with emotion.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said.
The Oxnard clinic has recently struggled to find doctors and practitioners to provide primary care. The new clinic will start with six providers and is expected to grow to eight. Wait times for appointments should improve, but it may take a while, Merchant said.
About 5,000 veterans received care at the Oxnard site. The new facility will be able to handle nearly double that number at full capacity, Merchant said.
Primary care providers at the new site come from the VA system instead of STG International, the private healthcare group that runs the VA clinic. The transition means that all veterans will have to adapt to the new doctors and primary care practitioners.
VA leaders held a virtual town hall in April with Oxnard Clinic employees, telling them they could apply for VA jobs at the Ventura Clinic but would follow the same process as other applicants. Merchant said about a dozen of the new site’s 131 employees came from STG.
Area veterans have sometimes complained about the difficulty of calling the Oxnard clinic directly. Calls will continue to be routed to a call center, but people will be connected to staff at the Ventura site, Merchant said.
“Someone will answer the phone,” he said.
U.S. Representative Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, led the campaign for the new clinic and drafted legislation for the site approved by Congress in 2017. Brownley introduced a bill to name the new clinic for the late captain of the Navy Rosemary Bryant Mariner. . She was the first woman to command an operational air squadron in 1990 at Naval Air Station Point Mugu in Ventura County.
The name will not pass until the bill is approved by Congress and signed by the President.
Many veterans who visited the new site on Wednesday spoke highly of it.
“It’s really beautiful,” said Sharon Jones, a 70-year-old army veteran from Oxnard. “It will be good. We won’t have to travel.”
Byron Hazlett, 72, from Oxnard, nibbled on a plate of cheeses in the canteen. The Vietnam combat veteran said he was also impressed, but is wary of the possibility of a turnover that could mean medics moving in and out of the site.
He holds the final judgment.
“It will make a difference as long as it gets staffed and stays staffed,” he said.
Tom Kisken covers health care and other news for the Ventura County Star. Join it at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-437-0255.
SUPPORT LOCAL JOURNALISM: To see more stories like this, subscribe here.