New VA Clinic Opens September 27 with Promises of More Care Here, Fewer Trips to LA

Ventura VA Clinic

Veterans and community members take a sneak peek inside the brand-new Ventura VA Clinic prior to its opening on Tuesday, September 27, 2022.

VC Star article from September 17, 2022

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.

Get a sneak peek inside the brand-new Ventura VA Clinic in the photo gallery above. This new VA clinic is set to open on Tuesday, September 27.

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.

Source: VC Star article from September 17, 2022

VC Reporter article from September 22, 2022

When Vietnam War veteran Oscar Recio required medical treatment from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in the past, he had to drive from his Fillmore home to a VA hospital in Los Angeles or a clinic in Oxnard providing only limited services. That’s part of the reason he was so excited to attend a Sept. 14 open house for the brand new, state-of-the-art Ventura VA Clinic visible from the 101 Freeway at 5250 Ralston Street.

“As far as I can see it’s beautiful,” Recio told the Ventura County Reporter. “It’s not all old. It’s modern, it’s clean and it’s closer to home.”

The new clinic is slated to open its doors on Sept. 27. Officials said it will offer specialty services that were not available in the Oxnard location, which will be closing on Sept. 23. While veterans will still need to travel to Los Angeles for some treatments including major surgery, the new clinic will be equipped for audiology, speech pathology, dental care, eye care, cardiology, podiatry and physical rehabilitation. Laboratory services will also be available on site, officials said.

State-of-the-art facility

The quality of the nearly $11 million dollar facility is obvious when walking through the front doors. Sunlight pours through large windows onto modern furnishings more reminiscent of a tech company than a government building. Outside areas include walking trails in a park-like setting.

Viki Lynn is a physical therapist assistant who is relocating to Ventura from San Diego and told the Ventura County Reporter how impressed she already is with the facility even before it officially opened.

“I walked in, I’m like, oh, my, look at the equipment we have. It’s just a dream. We have the stairs, the treadmill. We have something for every level of patient here,” she said. “And then the treatment tables are also very nice with privacy areas. The lighting’s good. The windows make a huge difference. It’s just very exciting.”

Robert Merchant is the VA’s Executive Director of Ambulatory Services for the region and told the Ventura County Reporter that he’s happy with how the 50,000-square-foot clinic turned out.

“It’s a warm and welcoming place; you can see when people walk into the building. We’re just really thrilled to see what has been built here to honor their service and provide the health care the veterans have earned and deserve,” Merchant said. “I think particularly for Vietnam veterans who have advocated so long and so hard for recognition of their service and for services closer to home, this is an important statement.”

Merchant said one aspect of the clinic he’s most proud of is that it has a separate women’s health clinic with its own entrance, check-in and waiting areas.

“For many women veterans, they have unique health care needs. So it’s important for us as we deliver health care to recognize the unique needs that all of our veterans have and to offer facilities and services that meet those veterans where they are in their healthcare journey. Many women veterans have been victims of military sexual assault, and the added privacy and security of a smaller area dedicated to women veterans really is important in helping women veterans feel comfortable in the place that they’re coming for their care,” Merchant said.

Clinic could be named after Capt. Rosemary Bryant Mariner

Congressmember Julia Brownley said in a Sept. 19 news release that the clinic has been planned for many years and she’s happy to see it opening its doors. “The new VA clinic in Ventura County has been a long time in the making. Since I was first elected to Congress, I have been working to expand VA services in the region and to ensure that our veterans have access to the timely and quality care they have earned. Although the road to passing legislation to authorize a new facility was long, my legislation passed Congress and was signed into law in 2017 – and the clinic is finally going to open its doors.”

Brownley also announced that on Sept. 19 the U.S. House of Representatives passed her bill to name the facility after a local veteran, Captain Rosemary Bryant Mariner. If the bill passes in the U.S. Senate and is signed by President Joe Biden, it will be just the third VA facility named after a woman in the country.

According to a biography provided by Brownley, Mariner was born in Texas in 1953 and was the first woman to enroll in the aeronautics program at Purdue University in 1971. After joining the Navy in 1973 and graduating from officer candidate school, Mariner became a member of the Navy’s first flight-training class for women. In 1975 Mariner became the first female Naval Aviator to fly a jet attack aircraft.

Captain Mariner was named commander of Navy Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 34 at Naval Air Station Point Mugu in 1990. She was the first woman to command an operational air squadron, even though women were still barred from flying combat missions. The unit was 30% female, according to Brownley. After Mariner passed away from ovarian cancer in 2019, the U.S. Navy conducted its first all-female flyover at her funeral service.

“While opening the new VA clinic in Ventura County has been my highest priority, I believe that naming the clinic after Captain Rosemary Bryant Mariner will provide us with yet another opportunity to recognize the service and sacrifice of women veterans. I could not be more pleased that the House has passed this bill to honor a truly distinguished veteran from our community,” Brownley said.

A panel of Ventura County members of the Armed Forces, veterans and military spouses recommended the facility be named in honor of Mariner in July 2021. Mariner’s husband Tommy Mariner said she would be proud of the honor.

“As the daughter of a World War II Navy nurse, Rosemary would be honored and humbled by her name being over the door of a Veterans Administration Clinic,” he said in the news release. “While commanding VAQ-34 in Point Mugu, she saw how the needs of the veterans’ community in the Ventura area needed support as the World War II generation was aging. She worked hard to give her support to her sailors and officers while on active duty. Later, as a family caregiver, she helped her mother qualify for VA treatment.

“As a pioneer in the expansion of women involved in all aspects of the military, Rosemary had a rare understanding of how an open door with a woman holding it and smiling as if to say ‘Welcome aboard, sister’ meant so much to so many who had seen ‘Do Not Enter’ signs barring their paths on numerous occasions.”

Source: VC Reporter article from September 22, 2022