Collier veterans look forward to new $60 million clinic in Cape Coral

William DeShazer/Staff 
 A construction worker spackles the walls of an operating room in the Lee County VA Healthcare Center in Cape Coral on Thursday Sept. 27, 2012.

Photo by WILLIAM DESHAZER, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

William DeShazer/Staff A construction worker spackles the walls of an operating room in the Lee County VA Healthcare Center in Cape Coral on Thursday Sept. 27, 2012.

Video from NBC-2

— Mark Estell was curious, so the U.S. Army veteran and his wife took a drive to Cape Coral to check out the new Lee County VA Healthcare Center that will open in December.

"I saw it. It's beautiful," the 73-year-old Naples resident said. "It's quite the place but we haven't been inside."

He's one of many Collier County veterans who currently use the VA's primary-care clinic in East Naples and occasionally go for some specialty care at the VA clinic on Winkler Extension in Fort Myers.

Local veterans know the new Cape Coral center has been under construction and will offer more services but that's about all. The interior is under construction now.

"I haven't heard too much, just what I saw on TV," Andrew Smith, 88, said about the new clinic.

Once the new 220,000-square-foot Cape Coral outpatient clinic at 2489 Diplomat Parkway East opens Dec. 17, the Fort Myers clinic will close permanently.

"It is an outpatient facility but they are talking about extended hours for some vets who still work," Dr. Thomas Wachendorf, a primary care physician at the Naples clinic, said of the new Cape Coral center. "What's going to be nice is the services that will be offered will be wonderful."

VA officials held a media open house Thursday to show off the outpatient complex that cost $60 million to build, not including equipment, on 30 acres that the federal agency purchased in 2006. The general contractor is Manhattan Construction with offices in Naples. Nearly 80 subcontractors have been used.

The Cape Coral clinic, built by Naples-based Manhattan Kraft Construction Inc., eventually will absorb and replace the existing clinic in Fort Myers that serves about 26,000 veterans, with more than 178,000 patient visits last year.

"It's very much a healing environment and the equipment and furnishing will be very respectful in honoring our veterans," Suzanne Klinker, director of Bay Pines Healthcare System near St. Petersburg, said Thursday.

The Bay Pines system serves a 10-county region from northern Hillsborough County through Collier County. More than 300,000 veterans live in the entire service area. About two-thirds of the veterans could receive primary care and specialized medical attention at the new outpatient center in Cape Coral.

The Fort Myers clinic, opened in 1998, serves 26,000 veterans with more than 178,000 patient visits last year. About 80 percent of the veterans are older than 60 and about 96 percent are men.

The first floor of the contemporary building in Cape Coral is for primary care clinics and houses the laboratory and radiology department. The second floor has eight operating rooms for outpatient procedures and speciality clinics, and the third floor is for more primary care clinics and the dedicated women's program. The fourth floor is for mental health services and administration.

The building can withstand a Category 4 hurricane but because it is outpatient only, nobody would be staying at the center.

Wachendorf said some of the main advantages will be the availability of CT scans and MRIs at Cape Coral that aren't offered in Fort Myers. That means veterans needing those imaging tests have to make the much longer trip to the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System in St. Petersburg.

Some of the scans take 10 minutes but the travel time to Bay Pines has been what's burdensome.

"A five-hour round trip is a lot of travel time," he said. "That is going to be the huge advantage (with Cape Coral.) I think there's a lot of excitement in the air to have it up there."

Veterans who require specialized care are directed to the current Fort Myers clinic, which hasn’t been able to keep up with the region’s increasing population of veterans, according to the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs.

Initially the new clinic will offer the same services that's available now at the Fort Myers site but in an expanded capacity, VA spokesman Jason Dangel said. In due time, new specialty services and advanced imaging will be added.

Wachendorf said the distance between the current Fort Myers clinic and the new one in eastern Cape Coral near North Fort Myers is about nine miles. That's nothing compared to the trip to St. Petersburg.

Collier veterans who depend on van service from Naples to the Fort Myers clinic or to Bay Pines will see nothing change when they go to the new clinic in Cape Coral, said Rick Torres, veterans services manager with Collier County government. The free van service still will be available to the Cape Coral clinic, he said.

Collier County is home to 33,000 veterans and about twice that number live in Lee County, Torres said. In any given month, volunteer drivers from veterans' groups or private citizens take about 100 veterans from Collier to the Fort Myers clinic or to Bay Pines hospital.

"It's a great service," Torres said. "The service vans are VA. They provide the hard assets and I have to find the volunteer (drivers)."

The new clinic is designed to accommodate the changing medical needs of combat veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for veterans stationed elsewhere in the world.

For female veterans, there will be examinations geared toward their needs and staff members experienced with their medical needs.

The Fort Myers clinic has 330 employees and the new clinic will have about 400 employees.

Wachendorf, the Naples clinic physician, said no staff from the Naples clinic will be transferred to the new clinic. The Naples clinic has 6,590 patients registered for treatment.

"This office personnel will not change," Wachendorf said.

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