VA to create one-stop facility for Maui veterans

Sen. Hirono announces successful lease of land near Maui High

The Department of Veterans Affairs Maui Community-Based Outpatient Clinic on Hoohana Street in Kahului will be moving to land adjacent to Maui High School along with other administrative and psychological services. The VA has secured a lease for state land for the one-stop facility for veterans.
• The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

The Department of Veterans Affairs Maui Community-Based Outpatient Clinic on Hoohana Street in Kahului will be moving to land adjacent to Maui High School along with other administrative and psychological services. The VA has secured a lease for state land for the one-stop facility for veterans. • The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Maui veterans, who fought for years to consolidate medical, psychological and administrative services into a single location to reduce confusion, travel and overcrowding, claimed a significant victory Wednesday with the announcement of the approval of a new lease for a facility near Maui High School in Kahului.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono made the announcement of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs approving the lease to build the island’s one-stop facility for veterans at the Maui High site in a news release Wednesday afternoon. The lease is a partnership between the VA and state Department of Education, which owns the land, the news release said.

“I’m just thrilled to hear this news today,” Mitch Skaggerberg, president of the Maui County Veterans Council, said Wednesday. “This is one of the biggest moments for veterans ever in Maui County.”

Hirono made the announcement after meeting with the new director of the VA’s Pacific Islands Health Care System, Jennifer Gutowski. The Hawaii senator said she discussed working with Gutowski to “strengthen the VA’s commitment to improving communication and services” for veterans in the state.

A lease agreement for a Kauai veterans facility also was awarded last week.

“Today’s announcement is long overdue for our veterans on Maui and Kauai,” Hirono said. “In February, I heard directly from Maui veterans, who expressed their deep, continuing frustration that this important project had remained stalled for years.

“With this approval, we can move forward on design and construction of the facility that these veterans deserve.”

VA strategic planner Craig Oswald said Maui’s lease agreement for the state property is a first for the VA, which builds its facilities on land it or the federal government owns. The lease process involving nonfederal land is now referred to as the “Maui Doctrine” in Washington, D.C.

The pioneering leasing strategy for land not federally owned also was the main reason for recent delays in selecting a location, he added.

“We’re grateful to the state and their offer of land and to the VA for accepting it long term,” he said. “We’re not going to own it, but we’re going to use it, and we hope the veterans will appreciate it.”

While the exact location was not disclosed Wednesday, it appears that the $9.9 million facility will be built on overgrown land that borders the school’s baseball field along West Papa Avenue. The area has long been targeted and preferred by veterans for its central location and space.

The facility will consolidate the island’s three service locations: the Maui Vet Center in Maui Lani, which serves as a counseling center; the state Office of Veterans Services in Kahului, which assists veterans with applications for medical benefits; and the VA’s Maui Community-Based Outpatient Clinic in Kahului, which provides general health care.

The new facility also will have a conference room for meetings and social events.

The building will be 13,000 to 15,000 square feet with suitable parking on 2 to 4 acres, Oswald said.

He could not speak immediately late Wednesday afternoon on the details of the new facilities, but said in March that he expected construction to start next year and to last about 18 months. He estimated that the clinic could open in the latter part of 2019 or early 2020.

“Many of us have been working from day one on this,” Skaggerberg said. “Our existing clinic was built in 2001 and was only supposed to be there for four or five years.”

The VA currently is leasing a building on Hoohana Street for its outpatient clinic but has been unable to make it a permanent facility because the structure does not meet federal seismic requirements. The clinic serves about 2,000 patients per year and has 17 parking stalls with two reserved disabled-access spots.

“I’m sure our doctors and nurses and nurses assistants are going to be thrilled to have larger offices and more space,” Skaggerberg said. “Have you ever seen our waiting room? Right now, it’s pretty much like cubbyholes. It’s not much.”

Skaggerberg said he and other veterans have been in “constant communication” with VA officials and noted that he heard a second phase of the project will include 60 beds for a long-term care facility for veterans. He thanked the VA for continuing to move the project forward, despite years of delays, and for its foresight to include the long-term care facility.

“It was going so slow and we thought, ‘Is it ever going to happen?’ ” Skaggerberg said. “The Vietnam veteran’s average age is 68 to 79, so we told them we might not see it for the rest of our lifetime.”

Skaggerberg credited Hirono for making the final push and was grateful she met with veterans on Maui in February. During the meeting, she promised to press the VA to provide monthly updates on the status of the project.

“We told her enough is enough, and she took it to heart. Little did we know she was battling her own health,” Skaggerberg said of Hirono, who was recently diagnosed with kidney cancer. “She said ‘I’m going to do whatever I can to get it.’ ”

“This is a very happy day,” he said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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