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Mishawaka VA clinic to reshuffle health care for region's vets

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By TED BOOKER | South Bend Tribune, Ind. | Published: November 6, 2016

MISHAWAKA (Tribune News Service) — Roman Popielski is among many military veterans in Michiana who've had to drive to the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Fort Wayne for special health services not available locally.

But the 77-year-old South Bend resident is hopeful he'll avoid that trip when a new VA outpatient clinic opens next year on Trinity Place in Mishawaka, just south of East Douglas Road.

"It's quite a bit of difference in the mileage between going to Mishawaka and going to Fort Wayne," said the Air Force veteran, who has an issue with poor blood circulation in his legs.

Popielski isn't alone in his treks to Fort Wayne. The new clinic is expected to serve thousands of veterans from throughout northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan, who are now forced to travel to Fort Wayne or other locations for some of the specialty services that will be offered at the new clinic.

This month, workers will finish the exterior of the 71,000-square-foot clinic, which is expected to open September 2017 after interior work is done, said John Shealey, assistant director of the VA's Northern Indiana Health Care System. The $38 million facility, to be staffed by up to about 190 employees, will be called the St. Joseph County Health Care Center.

Though far from a full-scale hospital like the one in Fort Wayne, the clinic will offer several services that aren't available at the VA clinic on Western Avenue in South Bend. That 18,000-square-foot clinic, which will be replaced by the new one, offers only primary care and is run by a private VA contractor. It will operate until the new one opens.

About 40 employees work at the South Bend clinic. Many are expected to apply for jobs at the Mishawaka clinic, Shealey said, which will open with about 140 employees and is expected to ramp up to about 190 within six months.

Mishawaka versus Fort Wayne

Michiana veterans often go to the VA hospital in Fort Wayne for special health services, Shealey said. But that hospital is often overwhelmed with demand, causing the VA to refer patients elsewhere for timely care.

"It costs more for the VA to send them into the community for care," he said. "The Mishawaka clinic will relieve some of that pressure in Fort Wayne. We'll be able to see more patients in Fort Wayne from Marion and surrounding communities who are currently getting care from the private sector."

Among other things, the Mishawaka facility will offer primary care and services in the areas of mental health, audiology, optometry, radiology, cardiology, pulmonology, podiatry, urology and gastrointestinal endoscopy. It will serve several counties in northern Indiana, along with Berrien and Cass counties in southwest Michigan.

"There's a lot of exciting stuff in the specialty care realm that we'll do at this new clinic. We are anticipating a huge boom in business when we open this, because there's a huge unmet demand in that area," Shealey said.

Even so, Shealey said, the Mishawaka clinic won't have many of the services that are offered at the 600,000-square-foot, five-story Fort Wayne hospital, which is staffed by about 500 employees. Surgeries, for example, won't be done at the clinic.

"It was not meant to offer everything that Fort Wayne does as a full-blown hospital with a general surgery department," he said, adding that roughly 24,000 patients visit the Fort Wayne hospital per year.

Roughly 8,000 patients visit the South Bend clinic per year, Shealey said, and more than half of them are also patients in Fort Wayne. Because of expanded services, the VA estimates the Mishawaka clinic will draw about 12,000 patients in its first year, 14,000 patients in the second and 16,000 in the third.

Reshuffling care for veterans

Among counties in the Michiana region, St. Joseph County is home to the most veterans with about 18,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. LaPorte and Elkhart counties, by contrast, have a combined veteran population of about 20,000. The VA expects a portion of veterans from those two counties to become patients at the Mishawaka clinic, but it could not estimate how many.

Many veterans who live in LaPorte County are patients at the VA's outpatient clinic in Lake County's Crown Point, but they might decide to instead go to the Mishawaka clinic when it opens, said George Watkins, LaPorte County veterans service officer. "It will be closer for most of them," he said.

Many Elkhart County veterans, meanwhile, use the VA's outpatient clinic in Goshen, which is run by a private contractor and mainly offers primary care. The impact of the Mishawaka facility on that clinic will remain to be seen. "The Goshen clinic has filled a niche for vets who weren't close enough to South Bend or Fort Wayne, but there's a question as to whether it will survive," Shealey said.

'Significant economic impact'

The developer leading the Mishawaka project is Indianapolis-based Ambrose Property Group VA, the property's owner. Ambrose will lease the facility for 20 years to the VA, which will operate it. Construction of the facility, which has involved about 200 workers, is being led by Illinois-based McShane Construction Co.

Workers broke ground this spring on the project, after the city of Mishawaka spent $1 million to relocate a section of road and utilities, making room for the clinic.

The clinic will be about a half mile from Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center. Shealey said Transpo, which has a bus stop at the hospital, is expected to extend service to the VA clinic when it opens, but an agreement has not yet been finalized to do so.

Mishawaka Mayor Dave Wood said that if Transpo doesn't offer that bus service, transportation would be provided by the hospital for veterans to reach the clinic. "Transportation will not be an issue," he said.

Wood said the clinic will enhance Mishawaka's reputation as a regional health care leader and give the local economy a boost.

Jobs created by the clinic will "make a significant economic impact in a number of ways," he said. "These types of jobs are typically going to be on a higher pay scale. Not only will you have people working to support the area, they will generate income taxes to support the local economy as well."

tbooker@sbtinfo.com

©2016 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)
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