By Michael Isam
Special to Historic City News
St. Augustine has not seen such a brouhaha since Mumford and Son turned the well established community way of life on its head.
On Wednesday the large meeting room at Elks Lodge 829 located at 1420 A-1-A South, St. Augustine, FL was filled to capacity for the much touted VA Town Hall Meetings ordered by Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert A. McDonald.
What was the outcome after the dust settled? To quote from an almost forgotten poem by Earnest Lawrence Thayer, “There was no joy in Mudville.”
After the introductions of the VA representatives, Thomas Wisnieski, Director of the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System began by attempting to read a statement from a VA Under Secretary. He was cut short by a woman veteran proclaiming, “Cut the fluff, we want to know about our Community Based Outpatient Clinic.” For the rest of the meeting, the VA was on the defensive.
The statement “We are forbidden by a law, issued by congress, from saying anything about the process,” was repeated many times. It was like a person on trial repeating “I am invoking my rights under the 5th amendment.”
Bill Dudley, Chairman of the Veterans Council of St. Johns County, repeatedly voiced his displeasure with the way the VA has been handling the process. “I find it abhorrent that you will not, under any circumstances, give us any information about the location of our much needed CBOC. I find the fact that you and those who work for you appear so arrogant that you will not even reply to letters written by our two senators and a member of congress. This is totally unacceptable.”
Wisnieski quite frequently used the term “We are listening to you and we will take all this back with us for review,” while frequently glancing to his left where the two members of the Office of General Counsel sat stoically listening to the proceedings. For what were they listening? It was not clear, but the general consensus in the room was to make sure the line was properly toed by the VA. But the real elephant in the room was “You say you listening to us, but are you really hearing us?”
Toward the end of the meeting, Nick Ross, Asst. Director for Outpatient Clinics, Dept. of Veterans Affairs, offered his feelings on the matter. “I could tell you everything about the process, what stage it is in, what we know, the whole ball of wax, but if I did, these two gentlemen, indicating the general counsel representatives, would haul me off to jail.” “As we have said repeatedly,” continued Ross, “We are forbidden by law from saying anything about the process.”
A term bandied about many times during the meeting was “There will not be an interruption in the medical care for the veterans of St. Johns County. You will not have to leave the area for your healthcare.” Later on in the meeting Wisnieski added, “Some specialty care may take you to Jacksonville or Gainesville.” Just which specialty care items were not brought forth as he quickly moved on to another subject?
Veterans were not the only interested parties in the room. Members of the St. Johns County Board of Commissioners were present as well as several members of the administration.
District 5 Commissioner and Commission Vice-Chair Rachael L. Bennett was none too gentle in voicing her discontent with the VA and the process. “You folks have had 4 years, 4 years, to act! I find your actions and statements here today just a bunch of BS.”
Information obtained from the county indicates the VA has used incredible reasons for not accepting the county proposal to move with the health and human services to the new location on San Sebastian View. “The proposed location is in a flood plain; it is outside the center of veteran population, (by four blocks); there are not enough restaurants in the immediate area for the staff.”
Information brought forth by the County Administration indicates the VA used information at least five years old and, in some cases, older.
There was a short-lived bright spot in an otherwise gloomy afternoon.
Jessica L. Kaplan, Director, Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction, Real Property Service said “In terms of the long-term procurement for a new clinic, the VA is in the process of reviewing proposals and that as soon as a contract award is made, scheduled for spring 2015, the VA will be able to share the location of the permanent solution.” Kaplan continued, “Regardless of where the permanent location will be, there will likely be a need for a temporary solution once the March deadline arrives. By next Wednesday (September 10), the people that did offer their facilities will be notified as to whether their proposals were deemed acceptable or not.” There was no answer to the underlying question of “When will the veterans know?”
Many look at the process as the VA owning a building for veteran care facilities. In the case of a CBOC, this is not true. CBOC’s are located in leased spaces. The VA will issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a builder to procure property and build the structure to the VA specifications. The VA will then rent that space. In the case of the much needed CBOC opened in Putnam County, it was located at a shopping mall.
“Did we really expect the entrenched VA bureaucracy to just roll over and die for the good of the veteran?” said a Vietnam Veteran who asked not to be identified. “We have been fighting 50 years for what is due us. Just a different day, same stuff.”
Veterans Council Chairman, Bill Dudley put it best, “Our veterans deserve better than this. They didn’t ask questions about when they had to go and serve. They didn’t question that, they went and served.” “Now all they’re asking is ‘Where is my health care going to come from in seven months?’ And they are not telling us.”
Disclosure: The author of this story is the current Commander of DAV Chapter 6 who receives his medical treatment from the VA and is assigned to the St. Augustine CBOC.