VA official: Springfield clinic location to be announced this winter

Posted on November 25, 2015 10:04 am CST

Springfield News-Leader
By: Thomas Gounley

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A decision on the location of a long-planned Veterans Affairs clinic in Springfield is slated to be announced by the end of February, a top official here said Monday. That timetable would translate to the clinic, once planned to open in early 2015, welcoming its first patients in late 2018 or early 2019.

The VA currently has a clinic operating in Mount Vernon. Under plans first floated in 2010, that clinic will close, to be replaced by the clinic in Springfield and another in Joplin. VA officials have said the move will put its services closer to a greater number of veterans.

Mount Vernon city leaders have recently been pushing for a meeting with VA officials, hoping to keep at least some services in the city of about 4,500.

"We'd like to sit down and discuss it," City Administrator Max Stringer told the Joplin Globe last month.

Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield, who has been critical of certain aspects of the relocation process, voiced support of a meeting being held.

Dr. Mark Worley, interim medical center director for the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, which oversees operations in southwest Missouri, held a briefing with reporters Monday morning. He said there was a meeting scheduled with Mount Vernon officials Monday afternoon, but reiterated that the plans do not call for any VA operations to remain in the city once the new clinics open.

The VA originally proposed building a clinic in Springfield in 1984. But two area congressmen — Republicans Rep. Gene Taylor of Missouri and Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt of Arkansas — pushed for locating in Mount Vernon instead, and petitions with signatures of more than 3,500 signatures from veterans were submitted to officials in support. The Mount Vernon clinic, which is named after Taylor, opened in 1989.

A quarter century later, VA officials believe it makes more sense to operate in Springfield and Joplin, which have much higher populations — approximately 160,000 and 50,000, respectively.

“The (Mount Vernon) community has been very receptive, but if you just look at where the veterans are, they’re actually in Joplin and Springfield,” Worley said. “And so that’s kind of why we’re doing this transition.”

Worley said the move will allow the VA to serve an estimated 14,000 veterans in the cities — 9,000 in Springfield and 5,000 in Joplin — who have not been traveling to Mount Vernon. While those individuals may have been receiving care through private insurance or another arrangement, Worley said, treatment through the VA is a benefit they earned through military service.

Right now, the Disabled American Veterans runs shuttles from Springfield and Joplin to Mount Vernon. Worley expects that to continue in the reverse once the relocation happens.

“We are going to continue working with those veterans in Mount Vernon,” he said. “While the clinics will be slightly more distance, they’ll be within 40 miles of either one almost.”

Worley said Fayetteville staffers are not involved at all in the process of selecting the site for the clinic in Springfield. That decision will be made by Real Property Services, a division within the VA's Office of Construction and Facilities Management.

The News-Leader in 2014 reported several sites being discussed as possible locations for the clinic, based on requests to the city for zoning changes. Those sites included a 20-acre plot near the intersection of Kansas Expressway and Republic Road, an area east of Kickapoo High School in south Springfield and a plot of land south of The Library Center on South Campbell Avenue. It's unclear, however, if the sites are still being actively considered, or what other sites might be under consideration.

Worley said he believed Real Property Services would announce the location this winter, with the end of February serving as a self-imposed deadline. Two environmental studies have been performed on possible sites, according to the VA, and a third is in progress.

Once the location is settled, the construction contract would be put out to bid. It will be about two years from groundbreaking to the day the first veteran walks through the doors of the Springfield clinic, Worley said.

Geoff Butler and Bob Murray are part of the group that is pushing for the plot near Kansas and Republic. They said they believe their property is still in the running to get the clinic, but as of Monday they did not know which location was considered the front-runner.

City leaders in Battlefield have also been pushing for the clinic to be built in their town. City Administrator Rick Hess said Monday he had not heard which location will be chosen, but he is skeptical of the February deadline.

“If we get it, fantastic,” Hess said. “If not, at least the vets are getting something around here they desperately need.”

The Springfield clinic was originally slated to open in January 2015. Congressman Long focused on the delays in a column published in the News-Leader last week, saying the relocation process has involved "far less transparency to local veterans than any reasonable observer would expect."

Asked to respond, Worley said Monday the VA “has tried to be very transparent,” citing town halls held with local veterans. He also reiterated that Fayetteville staff aren’t involved in all aspects of the planned clinic.

“I think at times, since we aren’t actually making the site selection, part of the lack of transparency that maybe he’s perceiving, or some of the other veterans, is we don’t actually have the information ourselves,” Worley said. “We try to let people know exactly what we know when we know it, and we will continue to do that.”

Staff at the Mount Vernon facility will be keeping their jobs, Worley said. About 60 percent will head to the Springfield clinic, which will be larger and offer more services, while the remainder will work in Joplin.

“We’re hoping that both those sites will come up about the same time frame.”

News-Leader reporter Harrison Keegan contributed to this report.

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