×

One-stop facility for veterans moving forward

Location to be selected in coming months

The location for Maui veterans’ long-awaited, one-stop shop for medical and psychological services will be selected in the next few months in a first-in-the-nation leasing arrangement for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a VA Pacific Islands Health Care System official said Thursday.

The $9.9 million facility will be built on leased land in Kahului, with the exact location to be selected between May and July, VA strategic planner Craig Oswald said. It will be the first time that the Department of Veterans Affairs builds a facility on land it does not own.

“Maui can do something that hasn’t been done anywhere else in the country,” Oswald said.

For years, Maui veterans have pushed for a place that would 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 members with applications for medical benefits; and the VA’s Maui Community-Based Outpatient Clinic, which provides general health care.

The new facility would replace the outpatient clinic and provide space for the other two services, as well as a conference room. About 30 workers will move from the old clinic to the new.

A floor plan of the new clinic already has been designed and the final plans will be completed after a location is awarded, Oswald said.

“We will move the clinic to the new facility, and we’re working collaboratively with the other potential tenants and other VA entities,” he said.

Construction is expected to start next year and last about 18 months. Oswald estimated that the clinic could open in the latter part of 2019 or early 2020.

The property will be 2 to 4 acres and the building size will be 13,000 to 15,000 square feet with suitable parking, Oswald said. He said several landowners offered use of their properties for the clinic, but he could not disclose the terms of the agreements.

Building VA facilities on land it does not own has never been done before. The closest thing to the lease is a direct federal-to-federal agency sharing with the Department of Defense for property, Oswald said. He said that the new leasing strategy is now referred to as the “Maui Doctrine” in Washington, D.C., and was the “principal overriding factor” for delays in the project.

The VA general counsel and top officials had to determine how and if the department could conduct significant capital improvements on leased land, Oswald said. He said that the opportunity was only possible thanks to landowners offering use of their land and prior efforts toward a leasing strategy from former Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, as well as former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

“Those prominent people helped give it legs,” Oswald said.

Leasing instead of buying the land makes building the new clinic much more financially manageable, considering Maui’s high land prices. Veterans have asked for the facility to be located near Maui Memorial Medical Center and other complimentary services, where the land could cost a million dollars an acre, he said.

“You could spend $2 to $4 million on land and subtract that from $9.9 million and all of a sudden you don’t have enough money left over to meet something the clinic was intended to meet,” Oswald said.

The news was “encouraging” for Mitch Skaggerberg, president of the Maui County Veterans Council, who has been a strong supporter of the one-stop shop. He and about 30 others from more than a dozen veterans groups that form the Maui Veterans Council met with Sen. Mazie Hirono last week to express their concerns and frustrations over the long-delayed clinic.

“This is the first thing we’ve heard concrete in a long, long time,” Skaggerberg said. “If the VA puts it out like that, they’re pretty sure it’s going to happen.”

Hirono said Friday that she heard the frustrations of Maui veterans who have to go through hoops to “access the care they earned in service to our country.” They also wanted more information about “the long overdue multiservice center for Maui.”

“In response to the Maui veterans’ concerns, I am writing to the VA regional director to ask for monthly written updates on the Maui project,” she said. “My purpose is to ensure transparency and accountability to the Maui veterans for this much needed facility.”

Oswald understood the complaints over the delays, noting that he wrote the business plan for the clinic more than six years ago. It took three years for him to get funding for the project.

“Now we’re really on track to getting to the meaty part,” he said. “We’re moving from conceptual to tangible.”

Transitioning to a new clinic cannot come soon enough, with the current facility overcrowded. About 4,000 patients are enrolled at the outpatient clinic, which has 17 parking stalls with two reserved for disabled parking.

Skaggerberg, a Vietnam veteran, said that his number one priority has been to see the new clinic built, especially for younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. He said anywhere from 1,600 to 1,800 Maui residents fought in those wars, most of them doing two to three tours.

“They saw a lot of combat so a big part of this is for them,” he said, recognizing the prior work of Vietnam, Korean War and World War II veterans. “We weren’t going to let them go through what we went through.”

Adding a long-term-care facility two to four years down the road has been discussed and has received verbal support from VA officials, Skaggerberg said. He said that the timing would line up with most Vietnam veterans reaching 75 years of age and older.

“Our dream is coming true,” he said. “Before we pass on, this had to happen.”

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