By Tim Vandenack
May 28, 2012
SOUTH BEND — Frank Blair, a U.S. Army veteran, sometimes has to travel to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facility in Fort Wayne for his health care.
It’s a one-and-a-half hour drive from his Elkhart County home — that’s a three-hour round trip — but he doesn’t complain. He gets good care.
Still, it would be nice to get more care closer to home, and with plans afoot to build a massively expanded VA clinic here in South Bend, the Gulf War veteran will soon get his wish. “If they do some of the stuff (here) that they do in Fort Wayne now so we don’t have to travel that far, it would be better,” Blair said.
A new 18,000-square-foot VA clinic was inaugurated near downtown South Bend on April 30, replacing a 7,000-square-foot facility on Ironwood Road. And by 2015, an even larger 65,000-square-foot, $6.7 million facility is in the offing here, with an expanded menu of care offerings and a broader staff of medical specialists.
“This certainly is better, a lot more modern, up to date,” said James Kelm. He’s a U.S. Marines veteran from Elkhart who, like Blair, was waiting for an appointment in the waiting area of the interim 18,000-square-foot facility, which draws from Elkhart, St. Joseph and many other area counties.
The planned 65,000-square-foot facility? Even better.
“I think they’re going to have to (expand),” said Kelm. “There are a heck of a lot of veterans around here.”
Elkhart County alone is home to around 14,000 veterans, according to Drew McClain, the Elkhart County veterans affairs officer. Some use a new VA clinic in Goshen, which opened in 2008, while others prefer the South Bend facility.
HONORING A PLEDGE
Veterans backers say the new facility is the least the country can do for those who served in the nation’s armed forces, a particularly apt message on the eve of Memorial Day on Monday.
“We send our people over to do jobs, the security of America,” said Bonnie Zimmerman of Breman, sitting in the waiting room of the South Bend VA clinic with husband Eugene Zimmerman, a U.S. Army veteran who had just finished his appointment. “We have to take care of them when they come back. That’s all there is to it.”
U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Granger, expressed similar sentiments. As Indiana’s Second District representative — now vying against Republican Richard Mourdock for a U.S. Senate seat — he’s pushed hard for funding to expand the South Bend VA clinic.
“Our veterans fight for this country. All the freedoms we have come from the efforts of our veterans,” he said in a phone interview. As such, the nation has a pledge to care for them through the VA system “and I am bound and determined to keep our end of the deal.”
Donnelly launched his efforts in earnest in 2007 and he has met with numerous local and national veterans officials, including VA Secretary General Eric Shinseki. Funds for the coming $6.7 million facility were included in a federal bill signed into law late last year.
WHAT’S NEW, WHAT’S COMING
The old Ironwood Road facility focused on primary care, like routine exams, and mental health services, like post traumatic stress disorder counseling and substance abuse treatment. Those services continue at the new center at 333 Western Ave., with the addition of ultrasound services and expanded “telehealth” services, that is, consultation capabilities with experts at other VA facilities via high-tech connections.
Notably, the 333 Western Ave. complex, a renovated car dealership across from Coveleski Stadium, also has much more space. The waiting area is bigger and individual exam rooms — two dedicated to the growing contingent of female veterans — are more spacious. It’s squeaky clean and, having been in use only about a month, immaculate.
“This center is better, a lot more modern, up to date,” said Kelm, on his first visit.
Blair, for his part, is still getting used to the change. “This is more like a hospital. The other one was small and quaint, it was like a home,” he said.
The new facility when it comes in 2015 won’t be a medical center, capable of major surgery like VA hospitals in Fort Wayne, Marion and Indianapolis. Still, it’ll offer a much broader array of services and be larger.
There will be specialty services in radiology, audiology, optometry, urology, gastroenterology, cardiology and dermatology, among others, according to Jennifer Baran-Prall. She’s spokeswoman for the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System in Fort Wayne, which helps oversee the South Bend facility.
The expanded clinic — at a site yet to be determined — will also offer some minor surgical procedures and increased pharmacy services. All the new offerings will mean an expansion in the number of medical staff and administrators in South Bend, from 44 now to around 158, according to Baran-Prall.
The upshot will be more services closer to home for Elkhart County and other area veterans and probably an increase in the number of veterans served in South Bend. The Ironwood Road facility served 8,694 veterans in 2011, the latest figures available, while the Goshen VA clinic served 3,325.
“Care is still first class for veterans anyway,” said DeWayne Jones of South Bend, a U.S. Army veteran who was waiting outside the clinic here after an appointment. “They treat me like I’m a general.”
That said, he likes the idea of increased services locally. “That way you don’t have to go to Fort Wayne all the time, or Indy or Marion,” he said.