A new hospital in Omaha would be built as part of a national streamlining of VA medical facilities recommended in a report Monday from VA Secretary Denis McDonough.
The report was the first step in a years-long process to revamp health care offered through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and likely faces significant obstacles in Congress.
The recommendations also call for new VA clinics in Fremont, Nebraska, and Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Nebraska and many other states, however, face possible consolidations and closures of VA facilities in more rural areas, despite a third of American veterans living outside of cities and suburbs.
The report recommends closing a small VA outpatient clinic in Sidney, Nebraska, that served only 663 people in 2019, a level the report called “unsustainable.” It says veterans have access to a local hospital offering similar care.
Nebraska veterans seeking care at the Grand Island VA’s urgent care center might have to wait for regular daytime hours to see a doctor under the recommendations. The report recommends reducing the number of nursing home beds at the Grand Island VA once a public-private partnership builds a new 34-bed facility at a Papillion hospital.
Despite the reduction in services at some facilities, the VA’s Nebraska recommendations are “largely positive,” said John Hilgert, director of the Nebraska Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
“Many other states did not see as much good news,” Hilgert said.
The report says taxpayers would benefit more from a new hospital in Omaha than from renovating the current structure, built in 1950. Architectural and engineering issues limit the ability of renovations at the current site near 41st Street and Woolworth Avenue.
The report recommends that the Nebraska-Western Iowa VA spend $1.7 billion on building costs. It also opens the door to moving the hospital to a nearby site with an academic partner, rather than remaining on the current campus.
The University of Nebraska Medical Center has been discussing building a new teaching hospital, and local leaders have suggested that the VA might join the effort.
“This is great for Omaha and Eastern Nebraska,” said U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who represents much of the metro area. “Our VA is continually rated one of best in the country, and there is great synergy with our VA and the other medical institutions such as UNMC. We can build on this great success and make it even better.”
In addition to the new Nebraska hospital and clinics, the VA calls for improving how the Omaha VA houses people seeking inpatient mental health treatment, including more single-bed rooms.
PT, hearing, vision care in Bellevue
It also calls for adding more physical therapy, hearing and vision-related care offerings at the VA’s Bellevue clinic near Offutt Air Force Base.
Before issuing its recommendations, the VA did local market surveys and listening sessions, regional VA spokesman Ron Woolery said. Now the agency will seek public input.
A commission will weigh feedback over the next year, then send the list to President Joe Biden. He will either forward it to Congress or return it to the VA for reconsideration.
Woolery said it’s a long way from a VA director’s recommendation to actually building a new hospital. The process could take a decade-plus, he said.
The report released Monday makes more than a thousand recommendations, each of which must be approved and then prioritized for funding.
But VA leaders have said they appreciate the Nebraska and Western Iowa VA because of the region’s willingness to raise private funds to help the VA better care for its veterans.
Omaha’s new ambulatory clinic was built on the VA hospital grounds using $30 million in privately raised funds, a first for a VA clinic of its type in the country.
“I think it just adds credence to what’s already been going on in the Nebraska market,” Woolery said from Eagan, Minnesota. “That conversation has already been going.”
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