After roughly 14 years of trudging through bureaucratic process, a contract has been awarded for the construction of the Charlotte Hall Veterans Affairs Community-Based Outpatient Clinic, and a public hearing for the concept site plan has been scheduled for Aug. 13.

Located off Route 5 just north of Route 6, the one-story building will span 17,741 square feet, and the site, including 120 parking spaces, will cover 6.6 acres, according to the concept site plan. The building will serve veterans from St. Mary’s, Calvert, Charles, Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.

The outpatient clinics make health care services more accessible to veterans who don’t want to travel, often long distances, to larger medical facilities. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs currently operate around 800 such outpatient clinics nationwide, and are working to extend those services to more rural areas.

Like the existing outpatient clinic, the new clinic will operate under the purview of the Washington VA medical center. Gloria Hairston, public relations officer for the D.C. center, said the reason for the new building was “expansion.” She did not know whether the current building would continue its services after the new facility’s construction.

The clinic will offer mental health services, primary and multi-specialty care and ancillary services, Betsy Bossart, district director for Rep. Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md, 5th) office said in an email last week. VA signed a 20-year lease with contracting firm FD Stonewater.

Ken Crouse, project engineer with Soltesz Inc., an engineering firm, declined to comment on the project Wednesday, saying he had been directed by the Department of Homeland Security not to answer questions about the clinic “for security reasons,” he said.

The proposed construction timeline would begin design and building construction in late winter 2019 or early spring 2020, Bossart said.

“While it is unacceptable that it has taken years to come to fruition, I am pleased that the new facility can finally begin construction,” Hoyer said in a statement last Wednesday. “I have worked for many years to secure funding for this project, and appreciate the efforts local stakeholders have put into advancing this project.”

Hoyer announced $6.2 million in funding for the project in 2012, when the clinic was expected to begin construction in 2013. A contract for a satellite outpatient clinic in Lexington Park was awarded in June, in an existing building, and is expected to be operational by October.

“I am thrilled to learn that contract was finally awarded after too many years of anticipation,” said Calvert County Commissioners’ President Evan Slaughenhoupt (R), who has been actively advocating for a community-based clinic for the Southern Maryland veterans at Charlotte Hall through his role on the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland’s Veterans Regional Advisory Committee.

Slaughenhoupt had previously expressed that he was hopeful the construction contract for the regional clinic would be awarded before Christmas of 2017. In February, a bus route was made available to veterans from Prince Frederick to Charlotte Hall Veterans Home, located near the site of the future clinic. Charles County also offers an STS bus that runs to the veterans home.

“The veterans in this community deserve a modern, up-to-date facility and additional services the new CBOC will bring,” Gloria Murphy, director of the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home, said in an email Thursday morning.

St. Mary’s commission President Randy Guy (R), a veteran who serves on the Southern Maryland Veterans Regional Area Council, said the holdup on the clinic over the years was money. VA “is a tough one to deal with,” he said.

“We’re extremely pleased” with the new clinic’s development, he said last week.

Bill Buffington, founder and CEO of VConnections, a nonprofit that helps provide services to underserved veterans and their families who live in rural Southern Maryland, said that it’s important that the services offered by the new clinic meet the particular needs of rural veterans.

“In 2015, the VA stated that veterans living in rural areas are some of the most underserved populations in our country,” Buffington said. “There’s a long list of reasons why, but they all revolve around infrastructure. The families that move out to rural areas lose access when they move away from urban areas.”

Buffington, a longtime advocate for Southern Maryland veterans and the veterans’ liaison to the College of Southern Maryland, explained that many veterans move to rural areas in an effort to recover from combat-related trauma in a peaceful and safe environment. That should not mean, however, that they should have a harder time getting necessary services.

The new clinic “has to be something that enhances that sustainable life for that veteran and their families,” he said. “Is it addressing post-traumatic stress disorder? Is it educating people about prescription drug use? Is it offering suicide prevention services? It has to be much broader than just putting up a building and saying that it offers veterans services.”

Buffington said he welcomes the outpatient clinic, but encouraged the people involved in developing its programs and services, as well as those constructing the facility, to partner with local veterans organizations like VConnections and the Three Oaks Center in Lexington Park to ensure that they are going to meet the particular needs of the over 40,000 veterans who live in rural Southern Maryland.

“They’re asking, ‘What does it mean for me?’” Buffington said of veterans who are inquiring about the clinic. “This is a conversation that needs to take place whenever you plan something that affects a whole population.”

Buffington said that a particular pressing need is for more health and wellness services that are directed to retired servicewomen.

“Many of their needs are different from those of servicemen,” Buffington said.

Francine Morgan, a retired Air Force veteran, agreed with Buffington.

“I’ve been to [the veterans’ medical clinic in] Charlotte Hall several times,” Morgan said. “I would like to see more female doctors there, for one. And I think they need a laboratory so they can take blood and urine samples. You have to go all the way [to Waldorf, Clinton or Washington] to get X-rays. And you can’t get labs taken there, either.”

Morgan said that there is also an acute need for mental health specialists in Southern Maryland, as well as more extensive transportation services around the region to help veterans get to appointments.

“Being in a rural area, we need more awareness about the resources for getting to and from places,” Morgan said.

The traffic impact study conducted by the Maryland State Highway Administration concluded that traffic in the area would continue to operate at an acceptable level of service, with the exception of the intersection at Route 5 an Golden Beach Road, which operates at an unfavorable level of service during the evening. SHA recommended an additional westbound left-turn lane to “mitigate all impacts associated with the proposed development,” according to the study.

Staff writer Tamara Ward contributed to this report.

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