U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope) has formally asked Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald to look into the issue of cost increases at the department’s outpatient clinic, following a story reported last week by Lagniappe.

In a letter to McDonald dated Monday, April 20, Byrne references the story, which noted the clinic was facing a holdover penalty Jan. 1 of 2016 that could cost taxpayers almost four times the clinic’s current rent at a University of South Alabama facility at Springhill Avenue and Catherine Street. The school has been planning to tear down the building, since the VA communicated it would be moving the clinic several years ago, which Byrne addressed in the letter.

“USA made plans to relocate its operations to a newer facility and, as a result, the cost of keeping the current location open have multiplied, he wrote. “The taxpayer is now left on the hook for exorbitant increases in leasing costs, due to the VA’s own bureaucratic delay. More importantly, our local veterans continue to be forced to visit old and outdated facilities that don’t even meet the minimum standard for care at other hospitals in our community.”

Byrne spokesman Seth Morrow said the office just wants to know there is a plan in place.
“We want to see a sign that some sort of progress is being made,” he said. “The current stalemate is unacceptable.”

Morrow said the turnaround on letters like that is usually a week or two, so the office is not expecting an immediate response. In addition to the letter, Morrow said they’ve reached out to VA staff members, as well.

In an email message last week, VA spokeswoman Glenda Powell wrote proposals for a new outpatient facility were received in September of last year and a lease award should be announced this summer. Once a site is chosen, the VA will begin a 26-month design and construction schedule, Powell wrote. Activation of a new clinic could also take several months, she wrote, meaning the opening of a new clinic could be as late as winter of 2018.

When it does open, the proposed 85,000-square-foot facility will offer primary care, mental health, audiology, speech pathology, radiology, surgical specialty clinics, women’s health, an eye clinic, pharmacy and lab, Powell wrote.

In February, Byrne introduced the Real Choice For Veterans Act, which would help close some of the loopholes from the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability, which passed the House of Representatives last year.

Byrne’s bill would change some of the language in the previous bill to allow veterans access to hospitals outside of the VA, if the VA clinic within 40 miles doesn’t offer the specialty a veteran needs.