Veterans in southern Hillsborough County no longer have to travel to the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa every time they need to see a doctor.
The hospital’s new outpatient clinic in Riverview opened last week, as part of a broader expansion to make health care more accessible to veterans in the Tampa Bay area.
The 65,000 square foot clinic is designed to provide primary care to about 10,000 veterans in the Riverview, Ruskin, Sun City Center, Gibsonton and Apollo Beach communities.
Dr. Brian Zilka, the Haley’s Associate Chief of Staff for Ambulatory Care, said he expects it will serve even more patients with specialties like radiology, mental health and physical therapy.
"Some people will just be using the specialty services in the building like the radiology, which is very unique,” he said.
“Having an MR (MRI) inside a remote clinic like this is very rare in the VA system, and so we know we'll get a lot of people from the Bradenton and Sarasota area coming just to use those resources, even our folks that live in the Brandon, Plant City, Lakeland area will be utilizing those things because it’s closer than the main facility.”
Operation Desert Storm veteran Reese Pichette was one of the first to have an appointment at the clinic. He said he's happy to no longer have to travel to Haley's main facility in Tampa or Bay Pines VA to receive care.
"It makes it a lot easier, especially for vets with disabilities and stuff, that they don't have to travel far and sit in traffic for an hour, they can come straight here because they live close by, like I live two miles down the road, so this is perfect," he said.
The clinic opened just weeks before a federal law goes into effect, allowing vets to seek private sector care if they can't get to a VA facility in a timely manner.
Dr. Zilka said the hospital's expansion will hopefully prevent patients from having to do that.
"Building these state of the art facilities, having the top-notch staff, having the patient experiences – we want the veterans to choose us," he said.
In an interview earlier this year, Veteran's Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie explained why the expansion is so important.
“Florida is number three in terms of total veterans population, it is the fastest growing state in the country for veterans,” he said.
The Haley VA is scheduled to break ground on a new outpatient facility in New Port Richey on June 6, and another in Zephyrhills the following day.
There are also plans to renovate existing clinics in Brooksville and Lakeland, and construction is underway on a new bed tower at the Tampa campus.