Study says new Lake Nona VA may be too small

The Orlando Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Lake Baldwin could close later this year.

The Orlando Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Lake Baldwin could close later this year.

Brittni Larson

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A study conducted by the Orlando Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Lake Baldwin says that even after the new, larger Lake Nona-based VA Medical Center opens, the growing veteran population in Central Florida will require at least 300,000 more square feet of space for medical services — the same size as the OVAMC that’s in danger of closing.

“We know that there’s going to be an increased need from patients in the next few years; we’re going to actually increase the amount of patients we see in Central Florida,” said Heather Frebe, public affairs officer for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “We’ll need additional people to serve the veterans and we’ll need additional space to provide that care.”

The $665 million, 1.2 million-square-foot OVAMC in Lake Nona is set to open in December, but likely won’t treat any veteran patients until next spring or summer. Staff have moved their domiciliary and community living center, which provide veterans with long-term care and housing, to Lake Nona already.

The Lake Baldwin location, which sees 100,000 veterans a year, currently offers nearly all the medical services a veteran would need, except in-patient hospitalization, which they outsource to area hospitals. The Lake Nona center has a hospital on campus, and when it broke ground in 2008, planners thought that it would have the capacity to care for all the local veterans. Once that opens and starts taking patients, the Lake Baldwin center may close.

But the study, which has been in the works for more than a year, found that Lake Nona isn’t large enough. They would need an additional 300,000 to 400,000 square feet of space to provide medical services for the projected number of patients they expect to see in the coming years, Frebe said.

To hire more people, they need space for them to do their work, and they don’t have that now, she said.

They’ve recently sent that information to the main office in Washington, D.C., where a decision will be made after another study, independent of the VA, is finished, Frebe said. But they don’t know when that will happen, and so the fate of the Lake Baldwin center is still in limbo. While it would make sense to continue to use that space since it’s designed for a VAMC purpose, is the right size and familiar to the community, she doesn’t know if that will happen, and none of those decisions are made locally.

U.S. Rep. John Mica, a Republican whose district includes the Lake Baldwin area, has focused his attention on saving the center for more than two years. He’s written letters to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and has gotten the support of other local U.S. Reps. Alan Grayson, Daniel Webster and Corrine Brown.

“Not only do we need the medical services for our veterans, but it’s an important employer, job generator and contributor to the economy,” he said. “It’s very convenient, it’s a very valuable government asset; it shouldn’t sit idle.”

The issue hits close to home for Mica because his own father died in a crowded VA hospital from service related medical issues 42 years ago. He doesn’t want any family to experience what his did, and he wants the best, most comfortable care for veterans possible, he said.

He’s also concerned about the homeless veteran population, who could be in the 180 beds now empty at the Lake Baldwin VAMC since they moved over to Lake Nona.

“Twenty-five percent of the homeless in Central Florida are veterans, they shouldn’t be living on the street or under a bridge,” he said. “We’ve got the capacity to treat them, to care for them.”

Mica said they would need to make a decision by the end of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, and if they don’t it’s a bad sign for the survival of the Lake Baldwin location.

Frebe said she’s not sure of any deadline for the independent study or the decision about Lake Baldwin.

If they do approve the additional space, which could be at Lake Baldwin or a future decided location, they’ll likely use it for primary and mental health care, which are currently two of the top medical needs for veterans, Frebe said.