OCEAN COUNTY – The county needs a new clinic for its over 40,000 veterans and officials are tired of the federal government’s “needless delays” in building one.
That was the view expressed through a unanimously approved resolution by the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders asking the Department of Veterans Affairs to fast track a new facility to replace the aging James J. Howard clinic in Brick Township.
Ocean County Freeholder Director Joseph H. Vicari said, “our veterans fought for us when we needed them and now, we are ready to fight for them. The facility and the location are simply too small.”
While plans for the clinic seemed to be progressing, issues with the federal bidding process led the VA to cancel a contract to build the clinic.
Vicari added, “we are working closely with Congressman Chris Smith, who is the senior member of the New Jersey Congressional delegation, and Rep. Andy Kim to fast track this project.”
Freeholder Gerry P. Little, who is liaison to the Ocean County Veteran’s Service Bureau, said the VA needs to explain the reasons behind the latest delay. “We have been patient, but now it is time to move ahead and get this project done.”
Both Freeholders sent a letter on May 26 to Smith and Kim pledging them any assistance the county could offer.
John P. Dorrity has served as the director of the Ocean County Veterans Services Bureau for years and his reputation for being an outspoken advocate for veterans’ benefits and services is well known around the state.
Dorrity recalled the efforts in the 1980s to secure the current facility. “It was the first of its type in the country and when it was first discussed it was planned as a mini-hospital. We were very proud of it when it opened in 91-92. I remember the protests we had back then to help get it going. At that time Bergen County had the largest number of veterans in the state.”
That has changed and Ocean County has the most now. Dorrity put the number of veterans at around 41,000. “We get veterans from Monmouth County as well that come here. We need a new clinic now,” Dorrity added.
Dorrity doesn’t blame the federal Veterans Association over the delay. “The specificity on the federal level for construction is insane and this pandemic didn’t help.”
He said he’d like to see the new facility based more centrally in Ocean County and believes Route 9 in Bayville would be ideal.
“The Freeholders have the right mindset but the veterans need this in a jurisdiction that is centrally located and has plenty of parking.” Dorrity said adding that he’s spoken with officials who said they’d prefer a new facility be based in either Brick where it is now or moved to Toms River.
He said he’s hoping that contract issues impacting the project are rectified soon. “These are good contracts but the mechanics of some of these contracts make it crazy.”
Among the many veterans who utilize the current clinic is Michael Colicchio, 72, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam. He is a resident of Holiday City in Toms River.
“I’m originally from Jersey City Bayonne and we had a clinic in Jersey City and a vet center in Secaucus which was pretty convenient. I’ve been going to the one in Brick since I moved down here in 2008. I go every six months for a checkup or a medications refill. My appointments are pretty fluid,” Colicchio said.
“Sometimes there is a wait with things like getting the earwax blown out of your ears but that’s not crucial. I don’t know if moving the clinic will correct that because you still need doctors,” he added, referencing the shortage of staff.
“I can’t complain about treatment and I still see my civilian doctors who I can get to see in a couple of hours. If there is room for improvement of its physicality, yes. Parking – you have to park close to Highway 70 sometimes,” Colicchio added agreeing with Dorrity’s idea of a Bayville location on Route 9 in a currently vacant strip mall lot.
Colicchio said “if I get there at 8 in the morning, I don’t have much of a problem. If I get there at 10 in the morning then I have to park on a side street or on an access road almost to Route 70. It all depends on time of day and day of week. It does get busy and there is a wait at times but every doctor has that problem. There is usually more than a handful of veterans there waiting, maybe 10 people at a time.”
Congressman Andy Kim, who has toured the clinic twice in the 18 months he’s been in office, co-wrote a recent op-ed with Barbara Kim-Hagemann, state commander, VFW Department of New Jersey. They said that the federal government has let down the veterans, and did not keep their promise.
The current clinic was made to serve a population of about 5,000, an eighth of the current veteran population in Ocean County alone, they said.
“In 2014, Congress authorized a lease project in Ocean County for a new CBOC as part of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act. This provided the authorization and funding to allow the VA to build a larger, more modern facility for our veterans. After promises of progress, that process was halted in the spring of 2018, when the VA decided to hit the restart button, delaying the expanded care our veterans need,” they wrote.
“At the time, the VA said that restarting the process would result in “increase[d] competition and lower costs” and would be done “in line with VA’s new business practices” to “ensure alignment with the current VA healthcare model.” At face value, these things make sense. We were told in January 2019 that a decision on the location of the new facility would be made by the end of September of that same year. That date came and went until finally last month, we were told the VA was going back to square one; New Jersey’s veterans shouldn’t expect a new facility until at least 2024. That’s a decade after this process was started,” they wrote.
This latest decision came as a surprise to officials, and they have not received sufficient explanations as to how this project fell through the cracks, they said.
Even while the plan for a new facility is getting started, the VA can do the following right now, they said:
- fully staff the current clinic
- establish a mobile “Touch Point” clinic to meet vets closer to home
- find solutions to the parking problem
- meet with veteran leaders publicly to provide transparency and hear what they have to say.