MOUNT VERNON, Mo. —
Area veterans who use the Department of Veterans Affairs Gene Taylor Outpatient Clinic here are looking at the prospect of having to travel farther within a few years for health care.
The VA plans to open a Springfield clinic in 2015 and close its Mount Vernon clinic.
A VA clinic for Joplin also is in the department’s plans, but for 2016.
While some area veterans are untroubled, others say the additional travel will inconvenience them.
Don Scott, 74, of Webb City, said his doctor at the Mount Vernon clinic is his primary care doctor. He said he usually visits the clinic twice a year for blood work and a basic physical exam.
“It’s 38 miles from my home in Webb City to the Mount Vernon clinic,” Scott said. “For Springfield, you’re talking 75 or 80 miles.”
He also likes the Mount Vernon clinic because he said it is streamlined and efficient, and the staff is friendly.
“I have no gripes or anything about how I’m treated there,” Scott said.
A U.S. Navy veteran, Scott served from 1956 to 1960.
He said he and other veterans are sent to Fayetteville, Ark., if they need to see a specialist.
Doug Klouse, 60, a U.S. Army National Guard veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and commander of the Carthage Veterans of Foreign Wars post, said he likes the VA plan.
“Just what we’ve heard is they’re making a bigger facility where it’s more efficient for all of us,” Klouse said of moving the clinic to Springfield. “I think a lot of people are pleased.”
He said the longer drive doesn’t bother him, but it may be a problem for older veterans, including his father. Klouse also goes to the Mount Vernon clinic for his annual checkup.
“I like Mount Vernon,” he said. “The people up there are wonderful. They always say ‘Hi’ to you and talk with you. I kind of hate to see it close down. My dad goes there. He really likes the Mount Vernon clinic.”
There’s $6.3 million in the 2012 federal budget for the Springfield clinic, although Susan Hansen, a spokeswoman for the VA based in Fayetteville, said the funds have not yet been appropriated by Congress.
“It was put in a line item in the president’s budget. We’re waiting for appropriations to be approved,” she explained.
The money is for a 68,000-square-foot building that will house a staff of up to 150 and serve 22,000 veterans annually. It will provide primary and specialty care, including dental, mental health, eye care, audiology services, pulmonary care, prosthetics and radiology. It also will have a pharmacy.
Hansen also said the location for the clinic hasn’t been determined.
The Mount Vernon clinic, which opened in 1990, has 130 employees and serves 17,000 veterans in the region annually. It is on the site of the Missouri Rehabilitation Center.
The late U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, R-Mo., was influential in locating the clinic in Mount Vernon — about halfway between Springfield and Joplin and close to his hometown of Sarcoxie. He was a former congressman at the time it opened in 1990. As opening day approached, Taylor said the clinic fulfilled “a dream since I was first elected to Congress.”
The VA’s plans for a Joplin clinic call for a staff of 40 to be able to serve around 9,000 veterans annually.
U.S. Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield, said he favors the VA plan for a larger clinic in Springfield, followed shortly by a smaller clinic for Joplin.
He said the clinics will be able to serve more veterans, and by having the first clinic in Springfield, it would make it more accessible to more veterans.
He said that in Washington he is reminded daily of the sacrifices of military veterans.
“Every day, when you walk off the House floor, you’re likely to see a wounded vet,” Long said, noting that he was heartbroken when he recently saw a legless vet in a wheelchair being pushed by his wife and carrying his child in his lap.
“There’s going to be a lot more vets who need services,” Long said. “We need to make sure we take care of them.”
According to Long’s spokesman, Keith Beardslee, clinic design is scheduled next year, with construction planned for 2014 and opening in 2015.
Terry Clay, who lives in Purdy, is assistant department service officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. His office is located in the Mount Vernon clinic, where he assists veterans and their dependents with filing claims.
“I’m going to continue to work for the veterans no matter where they put me,” Clay said. “I think we’re more centrally located where we are.”
Clay, who is retired from the U.S. Army after serving from 1981 to 1997, said the veterans are of varied opinions about the plans, based on where they live.
He said no one with the VA has notified veterans of the plans for the clinics yet.
Jerry Ross, director of the Ozarks Area Veterans Assistance Center, in Springfield, said moving the clinic to Springfield will make it easier for veterans in Springfield, but more difficult for veterans in Mount Vernon and other locations farther west.
He said the people who will be hurt most are those who can’t afford to travel to a Springfield clinic.
Ross also acknowledged that the Mount Vernon clinic has no more room to accommodate any more veterans.
“Part of the advantage will be they will have more space up here,” Ross said.
But he said he fears most a more fundamental loss.
“Any time you move something, you change it,” Ross said. “Mount Vernon is just a great facility. I’m just concerned that if they move it up here, it will lose something.”
Mount Vernon City Administrator Max Springer said that when the clinic closes, it will have a noticeable negative impact on the local economy and sales tax revenues.
“We’d like to see it stay,” he said. “Our goal is to keep it here.”
Susan Hansen, spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Fayetteville, Ark., said staff members at the Mount Vernon VA clinic will be offered the opportunity to transfer to Springfield and no jobs would be lost.