The patter of rain rapped hypnotically on the gleaming exterior of a new clinic for veterans on Santa Fe’s south side Tuesday while U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich joined a swarm inside that marveled at the amenities.
Nationally and in New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has sparked outrage among citizens and lawmakers in recent months over a series of embarrassing revelations about long wait lists for veterans trying to see doctors and underhanded record-keeping tactics that prolonged those delays only to earn department administrators cash bonuses.
Along with legislation Congress recently passed to ease the backlog of veterans awaiting health care, community-based clinics such as the one tentatively set to open next month in Santa Fe open the door for greater access to care for veterans, said Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat.
“Our biggest challenge in trying to deal with those issues was getting those wait times to get in the system down so that people can access the care that they earned,” he said.
Connecting veterans with health care in their hometowns eases that first step, according to Heinrich.
“Some of the reforms that were included in the recent legislation were designed to make sure that people could access services irrespective of where they were geographically,” he said. “These community clinics were on the front wave of that.”
Veterans are more likely to tap into health care when services are available close to home, said former Santa Fe city councilor Chris Calvert, who took the tour Tuesday.
“For the veterans who need the care, it means they can get it here,” he said. “They don’t have to travel to Albuquerque or wait forever to get it.”
At more than 7,200 square feet, the new Veterans Affairs health clinic on Beckner Road could swallow its predecessor twice. Santa Fe’s existing VA outpatient clinic, nearly 20 years old, is located on Brothers Road.
Instead of the two rooms at the old clinic where doctors conduct primary care visits, the new center holds eight. A sprawling lab in the new center, where veterans will have privacy, replaces the cramped hallway of the old clinic for blood draws and other procedures. Rooms for behavioral health visits and telemedicine conferences that can connect veterans with experts on their conditions fill half of the new clinic.
“I toured the old clinic a couple of times and saw the inadequate size,” Calvert said. “There was definitely the need and demand to build a bigger facility to meet the needs of our veterans here in Santa Fe.”
Even something as simple as the vast, level parking lot with ample parking spaces for veterans who struggle to walk represents a marked difference from the old clinic.
“We outgrew it,” said Pamela Crowell, associate director of the New Mexico VA Health Care System. “We were able to rent a little bit more space, but clearly it was much smaller than we needed to serve the veterans in this area. “This has been a long time coming for the veterans in Santa Fe and the New Mexico VA system.”
The VA contributed $1 million to the cost of the $3.2 million building, and Las Soleras developers financed the rest. The federal agency leased the space for the next decade.
More than five years’ work culminated in the upgraded health care center. Former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., started the process, which Heinrich picked up when he replaced Bingaman. The Santa Fe City Council expedited permits for the project, which is ahead of schedule, and plans bus service to the area.
“To be able to do so many of the things that our veterans need in the local community,” Heinrich said, “it makes a huge difference in their lives.”