Tom Kisken | Ventura County Star

Decked out in a “Proud to be An American” T-shirt, 93-year-old Herbert Wilkinson hobbled with his cane after his first peek at a new VA clinic in Ventura, declaring himself a happy man.

The long-awaited, 50,000-square-foot facility premiered in an open house Wednesday and opens for care on Sept. 27. It will bring more providers and new services in an expansion expected to bring care closer to home for about 10,000 local veterans.

For Wilkinson, an Oak View resident who spent two years in the Army after the end of World War II, the new clinic should mean fewer marathon road trips down jammed Los Angeles freeways to other Veterans Affairs sites.

“My son and I would travel to West Los Angeles, and it was no fun. It took all day,” Wilkinson said, offering an impromptu grade on the new digs. “Nine. 10 is perfect. I never give a 10.”   

The clinic sits off the 101 freeway on Ventura’s Ralston Street, a site once occupied by the Ventura County Star. The dilapidated building was demolished and replaced by a sprawling facility more than twice as big as the contracted Oxnard clinic it replaces. The old site, off Rose Avenue, closes on Sept. 23.

The new home didn’t come cheap. The VA will pay $3.7 million a year on a 20-year lease for the new clinic. They also gave the land owners $9.7 million to develop the site.

New services not offered at the Oxnard site include dental care, physical therapy, rehabilitation, eye treatment and audiology. There will also be primary care, podiatry, cardiology, dentistry, imaging and other services. The clinic will offer medication consultations but will not have an on-site pharmacy.

Other services like MRIs will still require trips to other facilities.

“We won’t do everything here but our goal is to really provide a hub for care,” said Robert Merchant, executive director of ambulatory care services for the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System that serves five counties, including Ventura.

The new clinic includes a women’s health unit, the first standalone unit of its kind in the Greater Los Angeles system, with a separate entrance and waiting room. It is a big change, especially for women who were assaulted or harassed during their service, Merchant said.

“You generally walk into a space that is filled with men,” he said. “For many women, that is traumatic.”

The clinic also includes more room for mental health care and a dedicated unit aimed at homeless veterans.

The facility will be run by the VA system and not by a contracted health company like previous VA clinics in the county. The connection has been long needed, said Ron Fitzgarrald, public affairs officer for Vietnam Veterans of Ventura County.

“We’re expecting better care because it is VA-run and VA-staffed,” he said, contending that private companies contracted by the government can be fixated on economic interests.

Wednesday’s open house drew about 500 veterans. Fitzgarrald, who served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, stood at the back of a spacious canteen, explaining how his group and other veterans have long pushed for a new clinic. His voice faltered with emotion.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said.

The Oxnard clinic struggled recently to find doctors and practitioners to provide primary care. The new clinic will start with six providers and is expected to expand to eight. Wait times for appointments should improve but it may take some time, Merchant said.

About 5,000 veterans received care at the Oxnard site. The new facility will be able to handle nearly double that number at peak capacity, Merchant said.

The primary care providers at the new site come from the VA system instead of STG International, the private health care group that runs the VA clinic. The transition means all the veterans will have to adjust to new primary care doctors and practitioners.

VA leaders held a virtual town hall in April with employees of the Oxnard clinic, telling them they could apply for VA jobs at the Ventura clinic but would go through the same process as other applicants. Merchant said about a dozen of the new site’s 131 employees come from STG. 

Area veterans complained at times about the difficulty of calling directly to the Oxnard clinic. Calls will continue to be routed to a call center but people will be connected to staff at the Ventura site, Merchant said.

“Someone will answer the phone,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, led the drive for the new clinic and wrote the legislation for the site approved by Congress in 2017. Brownley has introduced a bill to name the new clinic for the late Navy Capt. Rosemary Bryant Mariner. She was the first woman to command an operational air squadron in 1990 at Ventura County’s Naval Air Station Point Mugu.

The name won’t be adopted until the bill is approved by Congress and signed by the president.

Many of the veterans who toured the new site on Wednesday offered praise.

“It’s really beautiful,” said Sharon Jones, a 70-year-old Army veteran from Oxnard. “It’ll be nice. We won’t have to travel.”

Byron Hazlett, 72, of Oxnard, nibbled at a cheese plate in the canteen. The Vietnam combat veteran said he was impressed too but is wary about the possibility of turnover that could mean doctors shuttling in and out of the site.

He’s holding back on final judgment.

“It will make a difference as long as it gets staffed and stays staffed,” he said.

This story was originally published by the Ventura County Star on September 12, 2022.

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