State

SJ gets vets' health center

Stanislaus County has lost its bid for a major health care center to serve veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Thursday that San Joaquin County was selected for the $253 million center that will have a 120-bed nursing home and outpatient specialty clinic.

VA officials were quick to call it a win for the 80,000-plus veterans living in San Joaquin as well as Stanislaus, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.

Besides long-term care, those veterans will have access to services such as radiology, pharmacy, dental care, optometry, audiology and physical therapy. Today, the VA serves the area with primary care clinics, forcing many veterans to travel to the Bay Area for specialty care.

The federal government is shooting to open the center in 2015.

The project is part of an effort to realign VA health services so they are closer to where large numbers of veterans live, such as the Central Valley, which continues to see an influx of veterans moving from higher-cost areas of California.

Once the facilities are open in San Joaquin County, it appears the VA will close a nursing home and clinic at the Livermore Veterans Hospital campus.

"All told, there will be more services for veterans in the greater Bay Area than there is now and certainly more services for veterans in the Central Valley," said Kerri Childress, a VA spokeswoman.

Construction and staffing of the valley center are expected to create 900 jobs.

Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, who made a strong push for the San Joaquin County proposal, said there are more veterans in that county.

San Joaquin County had 44,426 veterans as of the 2000 census, while Stanislaus County had 32,214 veterans.

San Joaquin County has offered a site next to San Joaquin General Hospital and the VA outpatient clinic in French Camp, which is touted for its accessibility from Interstate 5. The VA has not committed to French Camp and will consider one or two other sites in the county. A decision on where to build is expected in July.

Stanislaus has regrets

Officials considered Stanislaus County's offer to donate 15 acres near the county public safety center at Service and Crows Landing roads south of Modesto. The county said it was centrally located for patients in the four- county area and could be supported by a network of health care facilities in Modesto.

"It is very disappointing," said Rick Robinson, chief executive officer of Stanislaus County. "We put a great deal of effort into trying to convince the federal government that Stanislaus County was the best site. We just think it made a lot of sense."

Before making the selection, a team of VA-hired consultants evaluated the counties based on criteria such as veteran population, cost of land, transportation, availability of medical staff and proximity to hospital facilities.

SJ, McNerney teamed up

San Joaquin County appeared to make the louder pitch for the center. McNerney held a rally in French Camp in January, and the county supported its cause by circulating petitions and flooding the VA with letters.

Roy Santiago, a district commander for the American Legion and past commander of Post 872 in Hughson, said he preferred the Modesto-area location but wasn't disappointed.

"At the end of the day, we are still happy a decision was finally made," he said. "They need to get moving forward on the project. We need a facility in the valley rather than sending our veterans to clinics in Livermore or Palo Alto."

Whatever site is chosen in San Joaquin County should be readily accessible from the valley's freeway system, he said.

Childress stressed that officials are working to double the size of the Modesto VA primary care clinic with additional mental health and primary care services. Officials will decide whether to expand the clinic offices in the "black glass" medical building on McHenry Avenue or find another location for the 20,000-square-foot clinic.

The VA hopes to complete expansion of the Modesto clinic and the outpatient clinic in Stockton by the end of the year, she said.

Last year, the federal government opened the Modesto Vet Center on Carpenter Road for combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.

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