BLOOMINGTON — Robert Netzke, a disabled Vietnam War veteran who lives in Danvers, said he can afford to drive to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) outpatient clinic in Peoria and hospital in Danville.
"But there's a lot of veterans who can't afford it," he said after a veterans town hall meeting Monday at John H. Kraus Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 454, Bloomington. Nearly 100 people attended the annual event.
Netzke said the main reason that he was at the meeting was to learn more about plans of VA Illiana Health Care System to locate a clinic in McLean County.
"I think it's great," he said. "It's going to be very helpful to people who don't have the opportunity to drive" to Danville or Peoria.
VA Illiana told The Pantagraph last summer that the VA secretary had approved plans for a clinic in McLean County.
Acting VA Illiana Director Christine Kleckner reported during the meeting that plans call for a 20,340-square-foot clinic in rented space. The clinic would be staffed by five primary care teams and would include mental health, social work, dietetics, tele-health, pharmacy and lab services, she said.
A location has not been finalized but Kleckner anticipates a site being selected this fall and the clinic opening in summer 2019. The VA said previously a long-term lease would be signed for an existing facility, which would be renovated.
The former McLean County Health Department building beside the McLean County Nursing Home, 901 N. Main St., Normal, has been suggested by county officials for a VA clinic, said Jerry Vogler, superintendent of the McLean County Veterans Assistance Commission.
A McLean County clinic would make it easier for area veterans to access the VA for primary care and outpatient mental health services, Kleckner said. Vogler agreed.
Other Central Illinois VA clinics are in Peoria, Decatur, Springfield and Mattoon, Kleckner said.
Vogler said about 11,000 veterans live in McLean County but only about 3,000 have VA medical cards. As more veterans retire and no longer have health insurance through their employers, they will be looking to VA for their health care, he said.
VA's goal is to provide outpatient services within 30 miles of any veteran. The McLean County clinic would serve veterans from McLean, Livingston and portions of Ford, Champaign and Iroquois counties.
"I think it's phenomenal," Sue Green of Danvers said of plans for the clinic. Green said she's a mother, girlfriend, daughter and sister of veterans. "It's going to go over very well."
"I've gotten very good care through the VA," Netzke said. "But you gotta search it out. You can't wait for them to come to you."
Among other issues discussed at the meeting, in response to veterans' questions:
- The VA can't prescribe medical marijuana because the federal government considers it an illegal substance. If veterans believe they need medical marijuana instead of prescription opioids and want it covered by the VA, Congress needs to act.
- The VA can't eliminate the means test without an act of Congress. Veterans may be eligible for VA services if they served two years or completed their first term of service but a means test with an income limit was added in 2003. Vogler said eliminating the means test would add thousands of vets to the VA system in McLean County.
- Veterans were assured that there would be continuity of care even though a contract is ending Sept. 30 with a third party that assists with scheduling for the Veterans Choice Program. The program expands access to veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or who can't get an appointment within 30 days.
"I think it went very well," Jim Waters, VFW Post 454 quartermaster, said after the meeting. "We're all about veterans helping veterans."