BRICK – Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough and Congressman Andy Kim (D-3rd) met earlier this week with local veteran leaders to discuss plans for a new VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) in Toms River.
“We expect to open the new facility in 2024,” said Kim. “In the meantime, we are going to keep working to improve the situation at the current facility (in Brick) and try to have a seamless effort there.”
Brick Mayor John G. Ducey and Toms River Mayor Maurice “Mo” B. Hill, Jr. also sat in on the roundtable discussion held at Brick VFW Post 8867.
Members of the press were excluded from the closed-door session to allow veterans to speak freely concerning potentially confidential issues. However, both McDonough and Kim responded to questions immediately following the gathering.
McDonough confirmed the process of moving and expanding the outpatient clinic from Brick to Toms River would take approximately 30 months. He said he walked through plans for the facility during the roundtable discussions and hoped to schedule other similar gatherings with more veteran groups.
Ocean County leads the state with the largest population of veterans residing within its 33 municipalities. The influx of veterans from surrounding areas has added to the long waits of those seeking care from the existing James J. Howard Outpatient Clinic on Route 70 in Brick.
The quest to replace the Brick facility has been long in the making. Just last year, the federal government halted the procurement process for a new clinic in Ocean County. Kim, joined by Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, called on the feds to provide answers regarding the abrupt change, with good news coming in 2021.
The Department of Veteran Affairs awarded a nearly $61 million lease for a new James J. Howard Community Based Outpatient Clinic to FDS Toms River, LLC on July 30, 2021. According to the contract award, the 20-year lease term includes 68,000 square feet of space and 480 parking spots.
Located near the intersection of Hooper Avenue and Caudina Avenue, the new clinic will sit somewhat behind the Toms River Fire Station at 1049 Hooper Avenue. Not only will the facility be larger, but it will also have the capability offer more expansive services to qualifying veterans and their families.
“The facility will allow for more things to be done in-house right here in Ocean County,” Kim shared. “We’ll be able to do CT scans and scale up in radiology for example and provide more attention to mental health issues. It’s not just a new façade – we’ll be able to increase services.”
Veterans and their families who need inpatient treatment will still need to go to East Orange or other hospitals within the VA healthcare system.
“The new facility will continue to be associated with East Orange, but we are going to be doing more specialty care to the clinics,” said McDonough. “The plan is to deploy more specialists to take care of vets here.”
Kim confirmed he has also introduced legislation to provide healthcare benefits for National Guard and Reserves members. He estimates that 120,000 – 130,000 service members who wear a uniform are without healthcare.
“If you serve our country and you protect our nation, you deserve care,” Kim said.
Concerning a particular medical issue, McDonough also responded to questions regarding burn pit injury claims. The use of burn pits was a common waste disposal practice on military bases and may have resulted in serious injuries to some service members. Many refer to the claims as equivalent to modern-day Agent Orange disability matters.
“Veterans who suffer from conditions such as rhinitis, sinusitis or asthma, and who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan should be coming forward with their claims,” stated McDonough. “We’ll make sure that those claims are properly adjudicated, and we have now established through this, this interim rule, as we call it, a presumption that those conditions are covered as service connected.”
Ryan Luurtsema, who served in the Army from 2008 until 2016, was one of the participants in the discussions led by government officials. He is the Assistant Director of Military and Veteran Affairs for Ocean County College.
Luurtesema pointed out that although New Jersey is the third smallest state in the country, it is the most densely populated in the country as far as military and service members. He called it remarkable that just three clinics serve well over 525,000 veterans and service members.
“That’s not counting the surplus population of spouses and dependents who get beneficiary care,” said Luurtesema. “The backlog system of the state is uncanny when it comes to treating veterans in their care and for their needs.”
According to Luurtesema, the approval of the new facility is one thing. However, he sees another issue – even as it exists at the present Brick clinic.
“There’s already staffing issues with a smaller facility,” Luurtesema shared. “That’s due to overwhelming appointments and not enough staff to facilitate appointments. There’s another facility approved for Atlantic County. What makes you believe the VA is ready to have staffing for two clinics totaling 225,000 square feet?”
“I think the clinics are absolutely valuable and will be utilized to their fullest extent,” continued the Army veteran and advocate. “I think the work in progress should not take years – but needs to be part of the planning points.”