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Bob Elliott: Federal action needed for French Camp veterans center

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Posted: Monday, June 2, 2014 11:49 pm

As a veteran who served in the U.S. Army for more than 30 years, I know firsthand the importance of supporting those serving in our military. America is free today because of the sacrifices made by those who have served in our armed forces.

Our servicemen and women are expected to place their lives on the line each and every day to protect our country, our freedom and our way of life. The least we can do to repay them for the great sacrifices they make is to provide them with readily accessible, state-of-the-art services and health care.

For the past decade, San Joaquin County has been advocating for a VA clinic that would provide conveniently located, comprehensive services to our veterans. After years of collaborative efforts by the county, veterans and veterans organizations, our federal delegation and city leaders, French Camp was ultimately chosen as the site of a new Central Valley Community Based Outpatient Clinic and Community Living Center.

Planning for the French Camp project — an approximately $300 million venture — is already well underway. The schematic design has been completed by an architect, and the Design Development and Construction documents are scheduled to be completed by the end of the 2015 fiscal year. A location has been selected adjacent to San Joaquin General Hospital, and 52 acres have been purchased.

The project consists of a 150,000-square-foot Community Based Outpatient Clinic and a 120-bed, 150,000-square-foot Community Living Center, as well as other infrastructure. Building this facility in French Camp will dramatically improve the standard of care for veterans across the Central Valley.

In addition to serving the estimated 87,000 veterans who call San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties home, the clinic will employ up to 400 people when fully operational and will provide several hundred additional jobs during construction. This project is a huge success for our veterans and for our community.

All that is needed to get started is federal funding authorization. Approved as part of the VA’s own CARES initiative in 2004, the project has since floundered despite demonstrated need and strong, bipartisan congressional support.

Due to a recent downgrade by the VA, the project fell significantly on the nationwide priority list for VA construction projects. The VA claims that the need for costly safety and seismic improvements to many facilities around the nation has pushed the French Camp project from No. 10 on the major priority list to No. 19.

This response is unacceptable and troubling. The French Camp project has stalled as a direct result of the VA’s own, acknowledged misunderstandings. Their assumptions of our progress are erroneous and fail to acknowledge many key factors, including the fact that the project will be “shovel ready” in 2015, as opposed to some higher ranked projects that are years away from being ready.

Additionally, our project apparently has not been given appropriate credit as either a “replacement” project, or as a project that provides “increasing access” to care. All these factors should be given appropriate consideration in the VA ranking process.

The VA’s questionable ranking system currently stands in the way of progress and access to needed care for our Valley veterans. Left unchanged, this ranking could delay construction of the French Camp project for years — an appalling prospect.

The county strongly requests that the VA reevaluate the French Camp project and give it proper credit to ensure it can be included in the president’s fiscal year 2016 budget proposal. Our Congressional members have also made this request in a joint letter to the VA.

We remain steadfast in our advocacy to get this facility funded and built, and we challenge our federal government to show the same urgency and commitment to serving our veterans as was shown when the State of California was forced to ensure construction of a brand-new, $900 million health care facility for prisoners in only two years’ time. Surely our veterans deserve at least as much priority as our prisoners!

Central Valley veterans have been waiting far too long for access to the needed health care that the new French Camp facilities would provide. The VA needs to fund our French Camp facilities now, and provide the care and attention our veterans need. They deserve nothing less.

To voice your opinion about the VA Central Valley Facility, please call 800-827-1000 (TTY: 800-829-4833) or write to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, ATTN: Acting Secretary Sloan D. Gibson, 810 Vermont Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20420.

Supervisor Bob Elliott is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He served his country for 30 years in the U.S. Army, and retired as a colonel, U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets.) Elliott was elected to the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors in 2012 and represents the 5th District, which covers portions of south San Joaquin County, including Tracy, Mountain House and half of Manteca. He currently serves as chairman of the board.

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