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NC VA Clinic Cuts
Travel, Not Services
Star-News (Wilmington, NC) - 7/16/2012
Joe Sipala is looking forward to the scheduled opening next year of the new 85,000-square-foot VA clinic under construction on the grounds of the Wilmington International Airport.
Sipala, 62, of Wilmington is a disabled Vietnam-era veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, knee problems and a skin condition related to exposure to herbicides that causes painful eruptions and rashes that don’t heal.
Although he can receive some treatment at the current Wilmington VA clinic on Physicians Drive, Sipala has to drive 90 miles one-way to the Fayetteville VA Medical Center to see specialists and receive more advanced care.
"So it’s going to save certainly time," he said. "It takes me four hours round trip to go to Fayetteville. I think that’s a big plus. It keeps people from making trips up there."
Sipala is one of about 13,000 veterans living in New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender and Onslow counties who use existing clinics in Wilmington, Jacksonville and Supply, said James Galkowski, associate director of operations for the Fayetteville medical center.
"We know that right now what we’re delivering in that market is primary care and mental health services," Galkowski said.
The new clinic will allow the VA to offer on-site specialty services, he said.
"We anticipate significant improvements in drive time, cancellations and transportation problems," Galkowski said. "No-show rates should also improve."
Some of the additional services planned to be offered by the new clinic include eye and dental care, audiology, radiology, occupational and physical therapy, podiatry, ambulatory surgery, and fitting and training for prosthetics, canes and wheelchairs, he said.
The clinic also will have its own pharmacy so patients won’t have to wait for mail delivery of prescriptions or go to a commercial off-site pharmacy, he said.
The clinic will use the VA’s patient-aligned care team approach, Galkowski said.
"The team working with the patient is able to accomplish more than an individual," he said.
For example, if a patient was determined to need the care of a dermatologist, that wouldn’t require a separate visit or a trip to Fayetteville, he said.
"This is what makes it so exciting to bring a new capital asset on board," Galkowski said. "We know it is going to help us meet the access that our veterans deserve."
Construction of the clinic is on schedule to be complete by the end of the year, he said. Ground was broken for the clinic in September 2011, the same year it originally was scheduled to open.
Problems with the original developer caused the delay for the clinic announced by U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., in 2009. The new developer is Milwaukee-based Summit Smith Healthcare Facilities.
"They tell us that they indeed are moving right along," Galkowski said after talking with the builder and the VA’s on-site engineer.
When opened, the clinic will bear the name Wilmington Health Care Center, he said.
The construction and design cost of the building remains about $25 million, while the cost to equip it with such things as X-ray machines is holding at about $6 million, Galkowski said.
Sheetrock is being installed on the interior walls of the building, indicating that major utilities, plumbing, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning units have been installed, he said.
Once inspections are completed and a certificate of occupancy is issued, the VA will start moving in furniture and equipment, and hooking up telephones and computers in January or February, Galkowski said.
"We are now moving into the hiring phase," he said.
So the clinic can open with trained staff ready to go, the first phase will involve moving existing staff from the Physician Drive clinic to the airport site.
Employees at the Fayetteville medical center are being offered the opportunity to transfer to the new Wilmington clinic, Galkowski said.
In the final phase, new employees -- such an audiologist -- will be hired.
While about 50 employees will be on staff on opening day, the clinic eventually will employ about 200 people, Galkowski said.
The VA estimates the clinic will have an annual operating budget of $5 million.
Galkowski said the clinic was built with flexibility in mind, with utility pipes buried in walls of offices so they could easily be converted to patient-treatment rooms.
"We have to anticipate a certain amount of care that is currently not being rendered," he said.
Jim Ware: 343-2387
On Twitter: @jimware