The El Paso Veterans Affairs Health Care System is expanding its footprint well beyond its main VA Medical Center clinic in North Central El Paso with plans for two community clinics to be built by the end of 2019.
The VA plans to move most of its mental health services from its main Medical Center, located next to William Beaumont Army Medical Center, to a new building on the Medical Center of the Americas campus in South-Central El Paso and open a West Side clinic in a new building in the Northwest Corporate Center industrial park by the end of next year, said retired Army Col. Michael Amaral, director of the El Paso VA Health Care System.
The VA will lease the new clinic buildings being built by private contractors.
It also has plans to move its administrative offices by the end of 2019 to two historic buildings to be renovated inside Fort Bliss.
The El Paso VA Health Care System, which includes a Las Cruces clinic, employs about 900 people, including about 850 at its main Medical Center, and has an annual budget of $260 million.
The El Paso system handled more than 31,000 patients with more than 300,000 visits in 2017, according to VA officials.
"Right now I’ve got 10 pounds of marbles and a 5-pound bag in this building (Medical Center), and I don’t have the room to expand some of the services I really want to expand," Amaral, the El Paso VA system director since November 2016, said during an interview in his office inside the main, four-floor Medical Center.
"To have everybody come into one location to get their care just isn’t the ideal way to provide care," Amaral said.
Reducing appointment wait times
Decentralizing with more clinics "is going to expand our capacity to provide care, which should lead to a reduction in time that our veterans have to wait to be seen. That’s one we improved on but still not where I want it to be," Amaral said.
The average wait time to get appointments varies by specialty and clinic site. For a new, primary-care patient to get an appointment in the El Paso system averages from 22 days at the main VA Medical Center to 25 days at the East El Paso VA clinic, according to data on accesstocare.va.gov, the VA's website that tracks wait times.
For returning primary-care patients, the average wait time to get an appointment ranges from one day at the East El Paso clinic to four days at the main Medical Center clinic.
The site does not provide data on wait times to see a health care provider at an appointment. But Amaral said he instituted a goal a year ago to have patients seen within 15 minutes of their appointment time.
“I don’t have any data to show how well I’m doing on that, aside from veteran feedback, but we are doing really well" meeting the goal most of the time, he said.
VA mental health clinic on MCA campus
Decentralizing VA health services with community clinics is being done nationwide, Amaral said.
The VA clinic scheduled to break ground first is the mental health services facility on the MCA campus.
An Aug. 15 groundbreaking ceremony is set for the new clinic, to be built behind the MCA Foundation's Cardwell Collaborative biomedical technology incubator building, which is part of the planned MCA Tech Park, a biomedical research park. It's located along Interstate 10, near Raynolds Street.
The clinic is scheduled to be completed by late September 2019.
"It's important to bring this kind of development to the (MCA) campus," said Emma Schwartz, MCA Foundation president.
"The VA clinic is a different use than envisioned" for the MCA Tech Park, but a use that fits the MCA campus, she said. "We would have liked a research building there," but "we have to be opportunistic in a good way to bring development to this area."
The foundation won a bid to build the project for the VA, which will have a 20-year lease on the 33,000-square-foot building, Schwartz said. The foundation will use federal tax credits to finance most of the $16 million project, she said.
The VA will contribute an estimated $2.5 million to $3.6 million for equipment inside the building after construction is completed, Schwartz said.
VA costs for its new community clinics is not being disclosed by the agency.
The MCA site is a good one for mental health services because the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso, located on the MCA campus, provides some of the VA's mental health outpatient services, the VA's Amaral said.
Other VA community clinics
The 14,400-square-foot West Side primary-care clinic is scheduled to be completed by August 2019, but construction hasn't started yet, Amaral said. The VA will have a 10-year lease for that clinic, located in the Northwest Corporate Center industrial park, near The Hospitals of Providence's Transmountain hospital.
The VA already operates a 10,000-square-foot primary-care clinic inside the Hospitals of Providence East Campus' medical office building at 2400 Trawood Drive in East El Paso.
It also operates a 12,500-square-foot primary-care clinic in Las Cruces, which is part of the El Paso VA system. The clinic, located at 1635 S. Don Roser Drive, was moved to a new building in April.
Plans also are in the works for the VA to renovate two historic buildings inside Fort Bliss to provide 13,000 square feet of administrative offices, which will be moved from the VA's El Paso Medical Center building, Amaral said. The VA will have a 50-year, no-cost lease on the buildings, he said.
Main clinic will have space to expand services
The new facilities will free up space for expanded or new services in the main, 337,900-square-foot, 23-year-old VA Medical Center, Amaral said.
"Pain management is one I really would like to expand a little bit more as we successfully reduce our veterans off of opioids (pain killers)," he said.
Some specialties also could be brought into the main center, he said. One possible candidate is gastroenterology, he said. Currently, all gastroenterology services for VA patients are provided by community health care providers, he said.
"We're just studying now what we want to expand into the (vacated) space," he said.
New VA Medical Center plans in the works
Amaral also hasn't given up on eventually moving the main Medical Center to the new William Beaumont Army Medical Center complex, which still is being built and is almost three years behind schedule. The hospital is tentatively scheduled to open in early 2020. It makes sense to have the VA center and the Army hospital next to each other as they have been for years, Amaral said.
The new, 135-bed hospital and 30 specialty clinics are being built on 270 acres of Fort Bliss land at Spur 601 and Loop 375 in East El Paso.
Original plans for the new hospital campus included a spot for a new El Paso VA Medical Center, but no money was ever appropriated for it, Amaral said.
The El Paso system has now made an initial request for money to move the main VA center next to the new hospital, Amaral said.
"It's a six- to seven-year process to get the funding, another three years at least in the contracting process," Amaral said. "Unfortunately, right now, unless I can make gears move more quickly, it's probably going to be 10 years before we can" build a new center.