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Monday, May 21, 2018
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Bilirakis sees good news for veterans

NEW PORT RICHEY — A longstanding effort to consolidate five west Pasco VA health clinics into a one-stop shop moved closer to reality this month when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution authorizing the lease.

Congressman Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, said final passage of the resolution would mean local veterans would no longer have to shuttle between the main VA health clinic on Little Road and four satellite facilities in Port Richey to receive medical, dental and mental health care. “We're running out of space, and parking is a problem,” he said.

The five facilities total just less than 50,000 square feet. “We're going to more than double that,” Bilirakis said.

The resolution authorizes the VA to lease up to 114,000 square feet for the new all-service clinic with 525 parking spaces. Bilirakis said the code requirements would disqualify the former Community Hospital building at Marine Parkway and Grand Boulevard in New Port Richey. The hospital has been mostly vacant since the owner, Columbia HCA, opened the Medical Center of Trinity in 2011.

Bilirakis said the VA wants a new building and will look to the private sector to build it. That's good news for local governments because it means the property would stay on the tax roll. Congress has authorized nearly $12 million for the new lease — up from the current $1.7 million.

New Port Richey city leaders had opposed a plan to sell the hospital, once the city's largest taxpayer, to the VA. Bilirakis said it will be up to local officials and the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa to decide on the location.

“If they do choose the New Port Richey site, the old hospital would have to be torn down,” he said. “I've had conversations with them, and I know they want to submit a bid. It's important that it's centrally located for the veterans, whether they're in Hudson or Holiday. I want it to be convenient.”

He stressed that veterans in east Pasco would continue to receive services at the Zephyrhills Community Based Outreach Center next to Florida Hospital on Gall Boulevard.

Brian Anderson, Pasco County's Veterans Services officer, said the new clinic is desperately needed in Pasco, which is home to more than 54,000 military veterans and their families. “We have this big draw down going on and forces coming home at a rapid rate,” he said. “We like to just pat them on the back and say, 'OK, it's over.' But the reality is it's not over. War is a continuing public health issue.”

Bilirakis said he has gained assurances from Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio to help usher the legislation through the Senate and with luck get it to President Barack Obama before the end of January. “My priority right now is to get this thing secured legislatively. I can say I got it out of the House, but that's not good enough,” he said.

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