Although Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson is holding his cards close to his vest about future projects, Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, said he hopes that VA officials will fund a retreat for returning soldiers from Iraq.
Livermore’s 115-acre VA Medical Center, with its hospital and nursing home, is almost certain to close because of the federal VA department’s budgeting problems. But McNerney is pushing to keep the center open to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychiatric illnesses faced by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We hope to use it as a residence for veterans that might need some time to adjust to PTSD," McNerney said in a telephone interview Monday.
But Nicholson, who is the subject of a lawsuit brought by disabled veterans and who has submitted his resignation and will leave his post Oct. 1, is not committing himself to the idea.
"We did go meet with Secretary Nicholson, and he seemed interested in our ideas and suggestions, but he didn’t commit to anything," McNerney said. "He seemed genuinely concerned."
While McNerney waits for an answer, he has two things going for him. Last week, Nicholson announced that he would add mental-health services to more than 100 VA medical centers to treat returning veterans for depression and other illnesses.
The VA also will add 23 new so-called vet centers, which are small, storefront walk-in clinics with staffs of five workers each. More suicide prevention counselors will be hired, and mental-health conferences will help state and local services coordinate to provide assistance.
A less direct impact — but one that could provide the impetus for more services — is a class-action lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco that alleges the Veterans Administration is denying veterans disability pay and mental-health treatment.
The complaint, filed on behalf of veterans by Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, alleges that the VA is failing to provide prompt disability payments and additional staff for medical care and services for PTSD.
McNerney, who is on the committee for Veterans Affairs, sells the medical center as a peaceful and idyllic setting for veterans to "rest and garden." He noted the grounds are remote and would allow veterans to decompress from their wartime experiences.
"There is a lot of room on campus," he said. "Nice palm trees, serene. Veterans can reside there and do gardening and do group sessions for a couple of weeks. Recuperating after the experience of combat, the sooner help is available and treatment comes, the better it is."
In May, a panel of medical experts reported that the number of veterans filing claims for PTSD jumped from 120,265 in 1999 to 215,871 in 2004. Payments climbed from $1.72 billion to $4.28 billion during the same period
The Livermore veterans’ medical center has a hospital and a nursing home for 120 long-term patients and 30 sub-acute inpatients.
Closure of the medical center is almost certain.
"The clinic almost certainly will be closed," the congressman said.