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State-of-the-art VA clinic breaks ground

By Staff | Jan 16, 2010

No one understands more than local veterans the benefits a Cape Coral VA Clinic will bring to the community.
Pete Nicholsen, a service commander for the Veteran’s of Foreign Wars, was one of nearly 100 veterans who attended the facility’s groundbreaking Thursday morning. He said it all began almost a decade ago as the Department of Veterans Affairs was looking to renovate Southwest Florida Regional Medical Center for a new clinic.
Of course the hospital was finally purchased by Lee Memorial Health System and is undergoing demolition, but that didn’t mean local veterans gave up on securing a new state-of-the-art clinic here in Lee County.
“That is what started it all,” said Nicholsen. “We have had quarterly meetings at the Fort Myers VA Clinic ever since.”
The veteran’s clinic in Fort Myers has been open since 1979 and has grown inundated with patients as the population of retired U.S. military personnel surpasses 200,000. It serves only 28,000 veterans with a limited amount of services, forcing veterans requiring advanced procedures to travel to the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System in St. Petersburg.
“If they go to Bay Pines for a procedure, they go there for a couple of days,” said Nicholsen. “And what about their families?”
The trip from Naples to St. Petersburg is approximately 300 miles, he said.
Larry D’Angelo is a service officer with Disabled American Veterans and shares an office with a colleague in the Fort Myers clinic. From day to day he works with veterans and their benefit claims and, on Thursday, he said the old clinic is always packed with patients.
“We are jammed and our offices are like a closet,” he said. “It also doesn’t do CAT scans, MRI’s or sonograms; this new clinic will have those facilities.”
Some of the technology offered new or expanded for the Cape Coral clinic includes advanced imaging, cardiology, audiology, dermatology, minor surgery, urology, ophthalmology, orthopedics and a Women Veterans Healthcare center. Once construction ends on the new clinic, D’Angelo said the Fort Myers center will close its doors.
On top of expanding necessary medical services, the VA is also dealing with new and emerging issues. Its mental health care programs — for troops diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — are being expanded and a unit has been organized to deal specifically with women’s health care.
“Our younger vets are coming back with wounds you can’t see,” said Nicholsen.
According to the VA’s National Center for PTSD, 11-20 percent of veteran who served in Afghanistan or Iraq show signs of the disorder. New services include one-on-one counseling and group therapy visits.
Nicholsen pointed out there is plenty of room for the new clinic to expand down the road. When it opens in 2011 it won’t have the capability to keep veterans overnight, but the design of the facility allows for a bed tower to be constructed when the need arises. He also expressed interest in seeing the hospital eventually open its own emergency room.
Even with the Cape Coral VA Clinic fully operational, emergency calls will continue be routed to nearby hospitals in the Lee Memorial Health System. And Nicholsen said veterans could be stuck with an emergency room bill unless they report visiting a non-veterans hospital to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“If you go to another hospital and don’t report it to the VA in 72 hours, you pay the bill,” he said, adding that a lot of younger veterans aren’t aware of this provision.
Many local organizations have been created to help educate veterans about their benefits. Ralph Santillo is the founder of the Invest in America’s Veterans Foundation on Del Prado Boulevard in Cape Coral. It helps veterans to find a job, a home, use the G.I. bill and learn about all of the benefits that are available to them.
“We can advise them on their health care and tell them where to go for services, connect them with the right organizations that can help them,” said Santillo. “The main thing they stressed yesterday is the trip. The new complex will eliminate a lot of that travel.”
Besides benefiting the veterans living in Southwest Florida, Santillo said he believes more veterans will relocate to Lee County after learning about the new state-of-the-art facility and the reasonably priced homes — all factors that may help the city rebound from economic peril.
“We are talking to vets outside the area to relocate down here because we have the facility coming up and we have a reasonable housing market right now,” said Santillo.
Fred Pezeshkan, president and CEO of Kraft Construction Company, Inc., the general contractor awarded the construction of the clinic, also said Thursday the company was looking to hire health care workers to fill 400 positions and that a large majority of the 600 sub-contractors and vendors for the construction job will be hired from Lee, Charlotte and Collier counties.
According to Santillo, 25 percent of the Southwest Florida population is made up of veterans and 68,000 veterans live in Lee County alone. Those numbers continue to climb, he said, as more retire to Florida or young veterans return home from Iraq or Afghanistan.
“It is growing in leaps and bounds,” said Santillo. “We thought we’d appear to the younger veterans, but it turned out we get a little bit of everybody everyday.”
D’Angelo said he deals with many veterans of Vietnam at the Fort Myers clinic — a group starting to visit more VA clinics across the country. He served in Vietnam as well and said many veterans from that war had a distrust of the VA until recently.
Overall, the 220,000-square-foot facility will sit on 30 acres, stand 89 feet tall and include 900 parking spots. Two-thousand tons of steel and 26,000 cubic yard of concrete are also being used for the clinic.